Life

The Head of the UK's Missing Person Unit Explains How Police Deal with Missing People

Read an extract from Francisco Garcia's 'If You Were There'.
May 13, 2021, 8:15am
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PHOTO: JONATHAN EASTLAND / AJAX 

Below is an extract from VICE contributor Francisco Garcia’s ‘If You Were There’ (Mudlark, £14.99), a book about missing people and those charged with finding them, told the through the prism of Francisco’s own journey to find his missing father. The book is out today.

Summer felt like an endurance test as I left Vauxhall Underground station on a Tuesday afternoon in June of 2019. It was one of those close, grey days in London where the air feels trapped with pollution and tempers are poised on a hair trigger.

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I was already running late, due to an earlier signal failure on the Victoria Line. It took a few minutes for my phone signal to reappear so I could double check the address of my destination. As I walked through the old Pleasure Gardens, there were the last of the office crowd on their lunch hours, trying to soak up the last few minutes of freedom.

Tapping at my greasy phone screen, I noticed a couple of tents pitched up at the periphery of the manicured urban greenery, with two youngish men standing close by, smoking warily and asking a few passersby in pressed blue shirts for change. Earlier in the year I’d read about a new hostel for rough sleepers in the area, opened to some fanfare in December of 2018 as part of Lambeth Council’s new drive to soothe the effects of rising homelessness in a borough where the number of people bedding down every night on the street is thought to be in the hundreds. Perhaps the men didn’t know about it and had pitched up from another area, or they had already been through its doors. I didn’t have time to stop and ask. 

It felt like the most logical place to begin my journey into the world of those who search for the missing. After around 15 minutes, I found the right alley leading to the entrance of the National Crime Agency offices. It’s a strange part of the city, a distended limb on the fringes of southern Zone 1, a stone's throw from a stubbornly unglamorous part of the river, a world of under-occupied luxury flats and pained-looking office complexes: a low wattage outpost not too far from the heart of the city. It’s also where mum had worked once, in her admin days at Lambeth Council – a time that seemed impossibly remote to me as I made my way down the side streets. 

This was to be my first face-to-face meeting with Joe Apps, the head of the UK Missing Persons Unit and a longtime professional in the world of the missing, having started his career working on the Metropolitan Police’s first dedicated Missing Unit back in 1995. He came to greet me from reception with a firm handshake, before we passed through a maze of thick security doors and surveillance cameras on the way to the unit’s home. Before we started, there was a bit of small talk, and Joe told me it had been an unusually busy few weeks, even by their own standards, as he sought to recruit 15 new members to the team. “Yes,” he said with half a sigh, “you could say it’s rather a long day already.” 

Any weariness either of us felt seemed to melt away even before I put my dictaphone on the table. Joe is an easy man to talk to, something I knew already after a lengthy phone chat we’d had a few months previously, in the early stages of my reporting. Back then, Joe had outlined a bit of his own history with the missing. He’d worked within the NCA since the unit’s formation in 2008, after it was set up to succeed its predecessor in the Met. He told me how the UK once led the way in the hunt for missing people, with the world’s first bureau set up in London in 1929. By 1994, every European nation had its own dedicated unit.

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There are three basic functions, he had explained then and was reiterating now: “To take on both missing person and found person cases from local police forces; to add value to existing investigations by providing support and expertise; and to use the data we receive to draft an annual statistical report on the number of missing and found people, which is then published online as The Missing Persons Data Report.”

Another crucial part of their work revolves around trying to match “found people” to the legions of the missing on file. These are the people who return from missing episodes, for whatever reason. “[The police] will often get in touch and ask if we have any found people on our records that match the description. We’ll look, but it’s not often we do. Usually it’s a dead person, or a person in hospital with amnesia, which we then have a higher success rate in matching.”

Joe and his team work in a world of shadows; hunches, glimpses and half clues to be pieced together in the hope of what? Providing reconciliation and closure to the lives of those touched by the disappeared. But underpinning it all is a simple moral issue, a duty towards the missing. When the records had transferred over from the Met in 2008, they noticed around 800 unidentified people listed. That number had now been reduced to about 600, 100 of whom are babies – foetuses, newborns or infanticide victims. Another hundred are cases where a missing person abroad is thought to have a UK connection. The rest are outstanding warrants; dead bodies in the UK. “A number that is still far too high for our country and society,” he’d added quietly.

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My first impressions of Joe in the flesh were the same they had been when talking on the phone – a man who intimately knew both his subject and how to communicate it clearly and without exasperation when greeted with layman’s questions. In my naivety, I thought I’d already known something about the world of missing people. A personal hunch, formed by my own tangled thoughts of [my missing father] Christobal, and fleshed out by my early and piecemeal reading and reporting. But here was someone who had devoted their life to an issue that has always been with us, and appeared to be deepening in severity. His expertise started to feel like it could only show up my enthusiasm as amateurish in comparison.  

I needn’t have worried. Face-to-face, Joe is a cheerful, reassuring presence. The sort of man who has a kind word for everyone, quite willing to indulge someone writing a book, armed with all sorts of abstract questions. Though the cases could be gruelling, he doesn’t really do despair, or affect world weary fatalism. There is far too much work to be done for that.

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Over our first cup of tea, Joe wanted to start with one of the biggest questions: What is a missing person? It’s a question with immediate significance. The definition is something that is constantly tweaked, refined and batted between the various agencies with a stake in the missing. In his view, the current wording is too wide and places too much stress on depleted police resources. “[At the moment] it lets everyone become reported as a missing person without regards to their vulnerability, or the right to be forgotten. And we should also be asking: does the person really want to be found?”

For Joe and others who share his thinking, this comes to a question of fundamentals: “Many people who go missing don’t think they’re missing at all, because they don’t have that concept in their head. The family might think one way. They might well be distraught. But if that person is an adult – like your dad – then you have to say, ‘Well, they have every right to do what they want,’ even to the point of disregarding family emotions. In a case where there’s no vulnerability, the police will take a report, but they’ll also say that they aren’t going to put resources into it. Particularly in the case of a family estrangement or something of that ilk.”

Over the hours that we spoke, it became clear that Joe enjoys an anecdote, and he offered one up to illustrate the daily dilemmas faced by families and police. The previous weekend, he’d been round at a friend’s house in Ascot, the small East Berkshire town. One of their neighbours had come round, in a state of panic. The woman’s 15-year-old granddaughter was out with a friend in nearby Camberley, hanging about the town centre in the time honoured way of teenagers across the country. She had phoned to ask if her friend could stay the night, to save her an evening trip back home. Yes, that was fine, according to their grandmother. By 10PM, they weren’t back. The grandmother phoned the girl’s father, who was soon going apoplectic wondering where his teenage daughter could be. 

Anger quickly turned into concern as more and more time passed in silence. Soon, they were crossing the invisible line, where their daughter was becoming a missing child, rather than just a teenager who wasn’t in the place they were supposed to be. When does the family report this to the police? 10PM, when they started to notice they weren’t home? Or 11:30PM, just before both of them turned up sheepishly at the grandmother’s door?

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It later transpired that the daughter had been in contact via text, but had “turned her phone off after some threatening texts from dad, telling them that they were grounded for a year, and that sort of thing”, Joe outlined with a laugh. The question is when would they have become a missing person. “The police will say that they can’t see any risk, at that point. Do the family even want the police intrusion into their lives? Many don’t, for whatever reason. People often decide that they can handle it themselves. The police are in a similar position; perhaps they don't want to make that report because it isn’t a serious enough case.” 

When someone is reported missing and they're then found as an adult, the first thing they’ll ask is, “What do you want us to tell your family?” Joe explained. The response is not always the one that families want to hear. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Tell them I’m safe and well,’ sometimes they don’t want anything said at all, because it’s something in the family that’s generated the missing episode in the first place. So this notion of ‘what’s a missing person’ is a question that’s becoming more fundamental in both academic and practical thinking.”

It was a conversation as varied as the people who comprise the missing, but I wanted to stay on the left behind for a minute. The not knowing can drive people to extremes. The families that clamour for police attention have a strong view, but there are also those who eventually give up the search. The effects ripple out in unexpected ways, and previously unshakable relationships are altered in ways you never thought possible. 

As Joe said to me about an hour into our meeting, it’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact. Some people are more resilient than others, and others can’t really cope without a lot of assistance. The idea of “invisibility” is a powerful thing. Joe explained how the process of reporting someone missing to the state is itself a kind of trauma. The transformation of a person into a record can be difficult to deal with. One person’s entirety reduced into a two-page report in a filing cabinet.

It’s something I often think of Christobal. He still exists in my mind, even if just as an apparition; a weedy, sun damaged figure in a cheap leather jacket poised somewhere on the outskirts of my memory. He has never quite been fully inducted into the shadow world of the missing, though I’m not sure I could explain why the distinction matters. Not yet, at least. The possibilities of his fate are just about endless, even if I still thought most of them to be little more than useful delusions.