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How Police Using Social Media Affects Missing Persons Cases

In this article Caysie investigates how social media may impact missing persons cases with some commentary included from Cumbria Police’s ‘Missing From Home Lead’, T/Detective Superintendent Matt Scott.

I’m sure you’re familiar with logging onto Facebook to see a chain of missing persons posts from your local police office.

Tens of missing persons cases are posted per week, a large majority of which are accompanied by a ‘mugshot’ - the image police take of persons taken into custody.

But what effect does this have on the outcome of the missing person’s case?

Mugshots in missing persons posts may make them seem violent

It’s not unreasonable to be wary of a missing person post that contains a mugshot. These images naturally hold criminal connotations, and the general public has no way to know what offence the individual was charged with.

It could be a violent victim-impact crime, such as attempted murder or assault, or a petty crime, such as public intoxication, or a minor drug offence.

Humans naturally fear the unknown, especially when this ‘unknown’ could pose a risk to our safety. With this risk, a person may be unlikely to report a sighting of this individual for fear of repercussions.

On a recent missing persons post made by Cumbria Police, one user commented: “Always super concerned when they use a police mugshot as the image. Lol.”

Mental impacts on missing persons

More so, publishing these images online makes the missing person subject to criticism and abuse from commenters.

Assumptions about their criminal activity, criticisms of their personal appearance, and other remarks can have a significant effect on the missing person’s mental health, amplified by the fact that this abuse is publicised.

Social media may sensationalise missing persons cases

Nothing can ever truly be removed from the internet.

This seems to be forgotten when it comes to social media, where attitudes toward personal censorship tend to be more laissez-faire.

Missing persons posts expose the missing person to online criticism, where users view the situation as ‘exciting’, rushing to give their ten pence or post a ‘funny’ comment.

With 80% of missing persons cases being linked to mental health, it’s clear to see what the implications of this can be.

What Cumbria Police has to add

I spoke to Cumbria Police’s ‘Missing From Home Lead’, T/Detective Superintendent Matt Scott, who told me the following…

“We follow the national guidance on missing persons reporting.” This guidance is followed by all police forces in the United Kingdom.

He highlights this statement in particular: “A recent image should be obtained from family or other personal connections to the missing person.

“Where a missing person has previously been in custody, their custody photograph should only be used as a last resort and where the risk of harm to the individual is judged to outweigh the risk of using the image.”

This shows that the use of mugshots is not encouraged, and guidance actively attempts to deter social media teams from using these images. I found it interesting that the guidance directly acknowledges the risk of harm to the individual.

T/Detective Superintendent Matt Scott goes on to explain that while every effort is made to source personal images from family and friends, this is not possible in every case.

He states that their priority is to share a true likeness of the missing person, and to share the appeal in good time. This, naturally, means that a custody photo may be the most appropriate image to use.

To answer the original question

I set out to investigate whether or not the police use of social media, particularly the use of custody photos in missing person appeals, affects the outcome of these cases.

As much as I believe that these images being published online subjects the missing person to criticism and unnecessary remarks that may affect their mental health, and such should be avoided as much as possible… I accept that this is not always possible.

There is a high proportion of ‘looked after children’ in Cumbria, referring to children currently in local authority or foster care. Foster care can have a massive impact on the looked after child’s mental health, as we explored in an earlier article.

This can expose them to situations such as county lines, mental health struggles, and trafficking that makes this group of children more likely to go missing.

With looked-after children frequently being moved from one placement to the next, their foster parents may not always have up-to-date, personal photographs to offer police for these appeals. As such, their custody photo is the most appropriate likeness.

The same is true for individuals that are cut-off from their family and friends for various reasons, but may have been involved in illegal activities at any given time.

In conclusion…

The use of these images is sometimes unavoidable. But this doesn’t mean that precautions cannot be taken to protect the person in question from further harm.

Local police could disable comments on missing persons posts going forward - although this may prevent potential witnesses from coming forwards and cause less traction with the post itself.

However, users can still ‘like’ and ‘share’ these posts to boost their standing in the algorithm. It will also force individuals to report their sightings via the proper avenues, and prevent the missing person from knowing they have been seen and reported.

The most important thing that you can keep in mind when seeing these posts is that you have no idea what this person was in custody for. You have no idea why they have a custody photo, and you should not pass judgement or comment based on this fact alone.

This may be one of the darkest periods of the missing person’s life - they need your compassion, not your commentary.

If you have information on a missing person, you can report it here:

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