BILLINGS – Several recent highly-publicized missing person cases in Montana have some people asking: How do police decide what constitutes a missing person?
Lt. Brandon Wooley of the Billings Police Department says that police follow obvious guidelines. It depends heavily on the person’s age, mental capacity, medical conditions and if they disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a natural disaster.
In early September, the family of 49-year-old Laura Johnson took to Facebook for the community’s help in locating her. The post was shared thousands of times in the span of just hours.
But it wasn’t until last Tuesday that the Billings Police Department said her disappearance occurred under suspicious circumstances.
Meanwhile, Yellowstone County deputies are also looking for a missing 37-year-old man named Cameron Collin who was last seen Oct. 4 near Pryor Road.
The two cases have different circumstances for police to investigate, and Wooley said it’s up to investigators to navigate that information which can take days, sometimes weeks.
He said many times what starts as a welfare check on a relative from a loved one can turn into a missing person’s case, but each case brings about a different way of getting there.
“Usually officers have to weigh circumstances and they are different in every situation,” said Wooley. “Do they normally go missing or off the grid? What are their normal life patterns?”
Wooley also explains investigators use technology to confirm and corroborate information which can allow a case to sometimes move faster and sometimes drag it out.
When a missing person’s case is filed the information goes into a nationwide database, but if that information is entered again in another state, by another agency, it can duplicate, complicating the search.
Usually before that even happens, an ‘attempt to locate’ is placed on the individual which already gives officers on patrol a heads up that a person could be unaccounted for.
“Just because they are not listed as a missing person, doesn’t mean officers wouldn’t be doing follow-ups or collecting information or doing something to further the investigation,” said Wooley.
It’s also not illegal for somebody to just go missing or disappear for while, said Wooley.
“Without a crime being involved, someone can check themselves into a facility or go to treatment and not tell anybody and those facilities typically will not release information to police unless there is an investigation going on,” he said.
Officers have to weigh their ability to prove what happened with word of mouth. Wooley says sometimes a story can change about the missing person’s whereabouts. If stories conflict, officers find themselves sifting through a potential family conflict to find pertinent information.
“Sometimes families won’t talk or disclose to our things, so when we start digging deeper we find there are larger issues that had been in the family,” said Wooley.
However, even with all the guidelines officers must review or circumstance they must weigh, Wooley says Billings police specifically are searching for more.
“I understand that it’s frustrating sometimes. They may feel like we are not doing enough but we are working and there a lot of times we can’t release information about what we are doing and what we’ve done and everybody that we’ve talked to,” said Wooley.
-Andrea Lutz reporting for MTN News