Under the Microscope
In this installment of “Under the Microscope”, Todd Matthews, Director of Communications and Case Management for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and Joshua Savage give us a behind-the-scenes, myth-debunking look at NamUs—what it is, does, and how it works.
Behind the Scenes at NamUs: The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System
By Todd Matthews and Joshua Savage
In 2015, nearly every major television network had a lineup of programs that focused on forensic investigations. Through their programming, television networks have given the public a never-before-seen look into the world of forensics—a look that, unfortunately, is not entirely accurate. Many of these programs are limited to a 30 or 60 minute time slot, with many of those minutes being devoted to commercial breaks, resulting in a program that has to solve a crime or a mystery in an extremely short time period. In so doing, the networks have inadvertently given the public an inaccurate accounting of the actual processes involved. The paragraphs that follow will give readers and writers an accurate account of the various resources that are available to law enforcement and the public through NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Since its inception in 2007, NamUs has made great strides towards combatting our nation’s Silent Mass Disaster. Beginning as a centralized repository for information regarding missing and unidentified persons, NamUs has expanded into a world-class organization that has become the gold standard for countries around the world seeking to replicate its successes. It is the go-to tool for authorities nationwide, offering its services free of charge, thanks to a generous grant from the National Institute of Justice.
Entering Into the System
Once a Missing Persons (MP) case is entered into the NamUs MP Database, the case is assigned an MP number located in the top left near the subject’s name and photograph (if one is available). The investigating agency will receive a default set of automated possible matches based on a standard search criteria. The default setting is a general system search based on geography, chronology, and physical characteristics. Once entered into the system, the search can be fine-tuned to be more specific based upon available information and biometrics. The more information that is available, the more accurate the search will be.
The NamUs subject matter experts will then work with investigators in their process of elimination. NamUs currently has two Forensic Odontologists on staff who can analyze and enter dental coding information into the NamUs MP and Unidentified Persons (UP) Systems, allowing for comparisons and exclusions based on available dental records. Recently, they have made great strides in this area by building a working relationship with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Through their efforts, they have opened the door to quick and easy access to military dental records for comparison to current unidentified persons cases.
In addition to Forensic Odontology, we also have a Fingerprint Unit that can analyze and enter fingerprint information and conduct comparisons using our sophisticated Cogent Automated Fingerprint Identification System (CAFIS), the first of its kind in the United States. This system allows NamUs to store and compare fingerprint information related to missing and unidentified persons cases from across the United States, creating the only database of its kind in the country. Other databases allow for local storage or one-time searching of missing and unidentified fingerprints, but do not serve as a permanent repository for these types of biometric records. In addition, the CAFIS system ensures that identifications are not missed, especially when dealing with fingerprints from unidentified decedents, which are often of inferior quality due to decomposition of the remains.
So long as we have the needed biometric information for comparisons, we can issue an exclusion based on scientific evidence. If we do not have the needed criteria to compare or exclude a case, we do our best to further enrich the cases. Our Regional System Administrators will then contact local authorities to inquire about the cases, and secure the relevant information, if available. This information could also include securing a family reference DNA sample from any living relatives in the area. Written records might also be available, but not digitized and uploaded.
With the biometric data entered (dental, DNA, and fingerprints) the investigator not only gets to compare his or her case to the system suggested matches, but through their efforts, they are also making their information available to other investigating agencies who might be searching for the same information. Furthermore, NamUs is the only organization that not only allows access to the general public, but encourages it. Family and friends can oftentimes provide critical information that can assist authorities with their investigations. Our staff can further aid this process by facilitating contact between the public and investigators, allowing for efficient use of resources and time on both sides.
In the very near future, NamUs will be entering its newest iteration dubbed “NamUs 2.0”. This upgrade will provide additional features, and make the system easier for everyone to use—from the input of new cases to searches across the databases. One of the newest features currently in development is a system designed to assist families and law enforcement during “critical incidents”. While the NamUs Unidentified Persons and Missing Persons Databases largely deal with the long-term missing and unidentified, the Critical Incident (CI) Database will be an entirely different entity within the NamUs system. Drawing from its already established successes as a web-based platform and its capable and highly-trained staff, NamUs can activate the CI Database in emergency situations when needed.
When activated, emergency personnel will gain a centralized repository for information relating to the missing, injured, or deceased, as well as those found alive during CI events. Government officials and other agencies will be able to access the information entered into the CI Database by logging into the system using their username and secure password. By creating the CI Database, NamUs hopes to provide a simple, secure, and scalable system to provide accurate tracking and documentation during any event that might require use of the system.
NamUs will continue to grow as these new features come online, so please stay tuned to our website, http://namus.gov/new-features.htm, for more information.
Todd Matthews serves as Director of Communications and Case Management for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. In his current role, he manages the NamUs Regional System Administrator staff, oversees quality assurance and quality control of NamUs data, performs outreach and training, coordinates all NamUs print and broadcast media, and serves as the media spokesperson for NamUs. Matthews previously served as a NamUs Regional System Administrator and was a member of the NamUs Advisory Board for the development of the NamUs database and program. In those roles, he piloted efforts to coordinate data exchanges between NamUs and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. He has also served as the Media Director for two important volunteer programs related to missing and unidentified persons: The Doe Network and Project EDAN. He has worked as a blogger for Discovery ID and served as a consultant for Jerry Brukheimer on “The Forgotten” and Dick Wolf on “Lost & Found”, two scripted series related to missing and unidentified persons.
Joshua Savage joined NamUs in February 2015 as a Communications Specialist. He is a graduate of Tennessee Technological University (B.A. History, 2011) and East Tennessee State University (M.A. History, 2014). During his time at ETSU, Josh served in a number of roles ranging from President of the Alpha Epsilon Epsilon Chapter of the Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society to Councilman on the ETSU Graduate Council. His research centered on the American Experience in World War II, with a focus on the Tennessee Army Maneuvers of June 1941 which ultimately became the focus of his Master’s Thesis. Because of his service with the History Department of ETSU, Josh received a full graduate assistantship for the 2013-2014 academic year and the Dale J. Schmitt Outstanding Graduate Student Award in May 2014.
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