When Richard Okorogheye left his family home in West London on the evening of March 22, nothing seemed overtly suspicious.
The 19-year-old computer science student told his mother, Evidence Joel, that he was going to visit a friend nearby. He told her he loved her, to drive safely to her nursing shift, and that he would “see [her] later”.
She prepared spaghetti, his favourite meal, and placed it in the fridge for him to eat on his return. Richard never came home.
“No, but where is Richard Okorogheye?” asked concerned users on Twitter. As hours turned into days, Evidence Joel’s emotions swung between hope and despair as she awaited news on the fate of Richard, her “moon and sun”.
The case received major news coverage, and on social media, images of Richard and details of his last sightings were widely shared as the Met Police, friends and family desperately appealed for witnesses to get in touch. On the 5th of April, police found a body in a pond in Epping Forest, Essex. It was Richard’s.
Alongside the outpouring of grief and support, Richard’s case highlighted a devastating pattern of loss that has wallpapered the homes of so many families both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across the UK, Black people have been going missing in disproportionate numbers. Despite making up only 3.3 percent of the population of England and Wales, National Crime Agency statistics indicate that Black people made up 14 percent of missing persons cases in 2019 and 2020 - over four times their relative population. In London, 36 percent of missing persons in the city were Black, almost three times their city population of 13.3 percent.
Dominic Norton, a self-taught software developer, is hoping to step up the search for missing Black people in the UK. His website – MissingBlackPeople.com – scans the latest Black missing persons cases and gathers them in one place with the goal of “bringing families and communities back together”.
Filtered by location, the platform enables users to view the latest missing Black persons cases opened by police in their area, including those that may have slipped past the media’s attention. Each appeal includes critical information about each case, and includes a link where users can easily report any sightings to the police or share the case via social media. The platform is also equipped with a “community” section where friends and families across the nation can unite and receive support.
It is one of the first websites in the UK to zone in specifically on Black missing persons cases.
“When you look at a lot of the solutions out there in technology, a lot of them aren’t attempting to solve social problems within the Black community,” Norton explains, “and coming from Newham, a community that is very multicultural, these are the exact problems I am especially passionate about.”
In lockdown, children and adults from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds were still “more likely to go missing”, despite an overall decline in missing persons cases. “Individuals from some ethnic minority groups remain over-represented among missing persons reports,” said a spokesperson from the National Crime Agency. “While those who go missing are often driven by individual circumstances, UK Missing Persons Unit initiated work with academics in late 2020 in order to seek an increased understanding of the potential reasons for minority over-representation.”
Norton says: “I chose missing Black people cases not only because of the recent national cases of Richard and Blessing [Olusegun], but there are many many many more cases that we never hear about. When it comes to demographics, Black people are the most likely to go missing, especially Black boys, and we are seeing this everyday for a range of different reasons such as mental health.
“I wanted to amplify the cases and help rally the community together to not only support the families, but also to help continue the search for Black people disappearing across the nation.”
But a cursory look at Black missing persons cases reveal another common denominator: feelings of institutional neglect.
When Evidence Joel first approached police to initiate the search for her missing son, an officer allegedly told her: “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find [him] for you?” The case was graded “low-risk” - an assessment signalling there is “no apparent threat or danger to the subject” - despite Joel articulating that her child had sickle cell disease and had left without critical medication.
Joel believed dismissal from the police lost vital time at the start of the investigation - “I wish they had acted when I had asked them,” she said tearfully in an interview with Sky News.
Missing People UK says it is “concerned” by families from minority groups reporting discrimination from agencies when they report their loved ones as missing. In April, the IOPC launched an official investigation into whether race impacted the “actions and decisions” made in Okorgheye’s case.
Citing the “high tensions between the police and Black communities”, Norton hopes his platform can heal the fractures in police-community relations: “In missing persons cases, you need the police. They are part of the process. I would hate to see key communication being missed because of the existing tensions. My philosophy to community development is we have to do what we can as community people. So as a technologist, I hope the platform is a solution that can join other existing initiatives in helping ease these tensions.”
Norton’s project was retweeted over 8,000 times when it launched in April. He says that it was then he realised he was joining thousands nationwide in a common mission to find missing Black people. He set up a parliamentary petition that has attracted hundreds of signatures, urging the government to conduct a public enquiry into the disproportionately high number of missing Black people.
“We know the statistics,” he says. “The National Crime Agency has done the statistics, even though there's much more statistics to be gathered on missing people period. Not just Black people, missing people in Asian, White, Children, Women ... all missing people. But we need answers in the Black community – why are Black people over-represented in statistics?”
“It's not to finger point at anybody, but rather to investigate why this trend is disproportionately impacting one community more than any other.”
The Missing People free and confidential helpline is available 24 hours a day on 116 000.