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Back to Archives | Back to December 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk – New Centralized System for Finding the Missing and Identifying the Unknown

By Fred Evans,Sergeant, Indiana State Police, (Ret.), NamUs Regional System Administrator

issing and unidentified person cases present a huge challenge for state and local law enforcement agencies. Investigating these cases can demand extensive time and effort, and there are often few leads to follow.

An estimated 4,400 new unidentified human remains cases are generated each year and approximately 1,000 of these remain unidentified after one year.1 In fact, experts estimate there could be as many as 40,000 unidentified remains cases nationwide. In addition, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases at any one time throughout the United States, and some of these individuals may be victims of foul play.

These conditions, combined with the many pressures facing law enforcement agencies, can make it difficult to approach the situation successfully. NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), now gives law enforcement professionals access to a powerful online tool and forensic expertise to help move these cases forward, and the system is provided at no charge. Considering the current economic climate, this is welcome news for police chiefs nationwide.

Developed and funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and operated by National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC),2 is a central online database for missing persons and unidentified remains cases. The unidentified decedents database has been available since 2007, and the missing persons database went online in January 2009. At, investigators can collaborate across jurisdictions with medical examiners, coroners, forensics specialists, and families of the missing to upload and access primary source case data to research—and solve—these cases.

Award-Winning Technology for Case Support

NamUs is especially useful for investigating missing person cases that have gone cold. The system was built using the latest in database technology so investigators can create targeted searches. Law enforcement users can manually search by basic physical details such as hair and eye color or conduct advanced searches of dental records or unique identifying characteristics such as scars, piercings, tattoos, prosthetics, and implants and a full case report can be printed at any time.

Once registered on NamUs, the investigator, can use the system to add or update case information, track cases, communicate with other investigators, and request free forensic assistance. The system can be accessed through any Internet connection, and there is no limit to how, or how often, the system is searched. Sensitive identification information such as dental coding, DNA, fingerprints, and medical history details are not visible to the public, although the availability status of each item can be seen (for example, anyone can see whether DNA testing has been conducted or not). Law enforcement users also have the option to upload additional case information, reports, and images with the option of keeping them hidden from public view as well.

In July 2009, new capabilities were added to the system that dramatically reduced the time and effort required to conduct searches. The upgraded system performs automatic cross-searching between records in the missing persons database against those in the unidentified decedents database and provides side-by-side comparisons. Cases with similarities are automatically presented to the investigator as potential matches when the investigator reopens the case. Investigators can then include or exclude cases and note the reasons why. If there are cases that offer solid potential, the investigator can engage forensic services to conduct further identification testing.

The innovative technology used by NamUs was recently recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) with an Excellence in Technology Award at the 116th Annual IACP Conference in Denver, Colorado. This award program recognizes law enforcement agencies’ superior achievement and innovation in the field of communications and information technology.

Free Forensic Resources

NamUs’s advanced online technology is complemented by a dedicated staff of regional system administrators (RSAs) and forensic specialists who provide expertise in anthropology, odontology, fingerprint examination and DNA analysis.

Once a case is entered into the system, it is reviewed by an RSA who identifies additional case data that could enrich the case. If a case is missing dental information, the RSA may reach out to a NamUs odontologist who can then work with the local dentist to retrieve, chart, and upload the dental records into the system. Dental records and radiographs can be transmitted electronically to provide immediate comparisons without the delay and risk involved with mailing.

If no DNA information is available, law enforcement users can order free DNA kits through the site to be delivered to their agency for collection of family reference samples. These samples are sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for processing and CODIS work – all free of charge to the agency.3 Considering the extensive DNA backlogs that exist in many crime labs, this allows agencies to work missing persons cases without adding to their own backlog. The availability status of the reference samples is noted in the NamUs case file.

Other services include anthropology, prints, and even case input support, if needed. Simply put, the more detailed the case profile, the better chance of closing the case. NamUs provides the forensic resources to help build the most detailed case file possible, and it is all available online 24/7.

A Numbers Game

With technology in place to match the missing to the unidentified, it only follows that the more cases the system contains, the more potential matches can be identified for further investigation. There are currently over 5,859 unidentified decedents and 2,116 missing persons cases in NamUs. Medical examiners and coroners across the United States are continually adding to the unidentified decedents database, and investigators and families of the missing contribute to a growing missing persons database. The potential for matching up these cases increases daily as cases from almost all states have been added and can be searched.

There have been over 300,000 visitors to the NamUs System since June 2008, and traffic continues to increase. Cases in a number of states such as Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and New Mexico have been resolved thanks to the instant availability of quality information and the number of people using the system.

By bringing together the two searchable databases—unidentified decedents and missing persons—NamUs believes that the potential exists to revolutionize missing and unidentified person investigations and provide resolution for families across the United States. ■

The NamUs system provides simple navigation, quick
case entry screens and full search capabilities

The NamUs system allows investigators to look at
potential matches side by side for ease of comparison


1Matthew J. Hickman et al., Medical Examiners and Coroners’ Offices, 2004, NCJ 216756 (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2007), 1, (accessed November 3, 2009).
2NFSTC, a 501(c)(3) based in Largo, Florida, provides quality forensic services including training, assessment, research and technology assistance to the justice and forensic communities.; NamUs funding is through Award No. 2007-IJCX-K023 by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
3The Federal Bureau of Investigation offers free DNA testing for unidentified remains and missing persons cases, family reference samples, and offers anthropological and facial reconstruction services as well. The California Department of Justice and the New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner also offer DNA testing services for unidentified remains cases for cases within their respective states.

Recent NamUs Success Case Closed!

A recent New Jersey State Police (NJSP) case was resolved using NamUs. (Case investigation is ongoing, so names have not been released at press time.)

The timeline:

  1. An unidentified man was found in New Jersey and the NJSP entered the decedent case into NamUs on August 20, 2009.

  2. A woman was online looking for her brother who had been missing from New York since July 2009. She found the NamUs system and began searching. She saw a case file image and suspected it may be her brother. The woman contacted the NJSP about her suspicion on September 8, 2009.

  3. NJSP worked with the man's sister and his dentist, and his identity was confirmed on September 9, 2009.

This case illustrates the effectiveness and value of having a central online database that can be searched by the public and the justice community



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 12, December 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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