A new Metropolitan Police Department initiative to publicize reports of missing black and Latino youth in Washington, D.C., has drawn national attention and public outcry to a perceived increase in missing persons of color.
The Congressional Black Caucus called on the FBI to assist the MPD in investigating cases of missing children March 23, according to the Associated Press.
MPD has reported a total of 861 missing person cases since the start of 2017, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) to introduce a series of six initiatives to address missing young people in D.C.
However, MPD maintains there is no significant increase in missing young people in the area. Instead, MPD has expanded upon an information sharing technique, which debuted in December 2016. The department has been posting photos and personal information about individuals reported missing on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to recruit public assistance in locating the missing.
The situation of many of those reported has been deemed “critical,” a definition that includes individuals under the age of 15 or over the age of 65, as well as chronic runaways and those who present an imminent danger to themselves or others.
In the past, MPD has used its discretion to distribute photographs and names of some of the missing. Since December, the department has begun posting every missing person’s information.
The technique was announced in a March 16 press conference with Bowser, MPD Commander Chanel Dickerson and interim MPD Chief Peter Newsham, after a post on Twitter and Instagram claiming that 14 young women of color had been reported missing in a 24-hour time span went viral and the hashtag #MissingDCGirls began trending.
At the press conference, Dickerson urged the community to stay calm and explained that the number of missing person cases in D.C. had not increased.
“Let me first reassure you, we have no indication young girls in the District are being preyed upon by human traffickers in large numbers,” Dickerson said. “But when we talk about numbers, I’m not trying to minimize when I say there’s not an uptick or there’s been a decrease. It’s just that we wanted to be transparent.”
Newsham explained that MPD’s social media strategy may have caused confusion and concern among D.C. residents, but is serving its purpose.
Bowser affirmed this, saying that the social media approach has facilitated MPD’s ability to find missing persons.
“What we are seeing is an increase in the amount of attention and awareness that we are putting on children that have been separated from families,” Bowser said at the press conference. “In fact, we think MPD is leading in best practices that other departments should follow.”
Bowser announced March 24 she would establish six new initiatives to help find missing young people. Among these are increasing the number of MPD officers assigned to the Children and Family Services Division, expanding the MPD Missing Persons webpage and creating a public service announcement to support the 1 (800) RUN-AWAY hotline for missing youth.
“Through social media, we have been able to highlight this problem and bring awareness to open cases, and now we are doing more to ensure that families and children are receiving the wraparound services they need to keep families together and children safe,” Bowser said in a March 24 press release.
Various posts on social media have relied on information collected from MPD’s social media posts reporting the disappearance of 22 people, including a dozen black or Latino minors in the span of five days this month. Several tweets that have gone viral have underscored a lack of media attention on the disappearance of people of color when compared to white individuals.
Of the missing youths reported between March 19 and March 24, two remain missing.
Since the start of 2017, MPD has been able to resolve 830 cases, due in part to its social media strategy. Thirty-one missing people cases remain open, 17 of which are juvenile cases, according to MPD data.
The confusion over a perceived uptick in missing children in D.C. provoked public pressure for increased efforts to prevent disappearances and improve MPD resources dedicated to finding missing persons.
According to MPD data, 3,547 missing person cases were recorded in 2016, with 2,443 cases deemed critical. Six missing person cases remain open, with four critical and two non-critical cases.
The MPD has pushed back against press coverage that has suggested there has been an increase in the number of missing person cases in D.C.
Instead, the department reports fewer missing persons cases in 2017 thus far than in years past, about ten fewer per month.
Mindy Good, communications director for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, said that most missing person cases do not result from human trafficking, but rather from unstable personal situations.
Good said there must be a conversation around what the causes are and how it can be mitigated.
“These are legitimate issues but not at the rates many people seem to think,” Good wrote in an email to The Hoya. “However, runaways are far more vulnerable to kidnapping or trafficking even if that wasn’t their original situation so all the more reason to identify and address the root causes of what’s troubling these young people.”
Good praised one of Bowser’s initiatives involving members of the CFSA in analyzing open missing person cases.
“While all her six approaches may be helpful, we especially like the approach of seeing running away as a symptom and getting to the root of what’s troubling youth runaways,” Good wrote. “The mayor has set up a task force/work group with our CFSA Director serving as a co-chair.”
MPD Supervisory Public Affairs Specialist Margarita Mikhaylova said the increased publicity surrounding missing young people has helped to bring awareness to the domestic situation causing many young people to run away.
“As we’ve said previously, we are working to increase community awareness surrounding missing people, and missing children,” Mikhaylova wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The complex factors involved with some of the circumstances surrounding young men and women in D.C. and nationwide are ones that deserve in-depth review and discussion.”
Mikhaylova said the decision to release more details about the subjects over social media has been an effective tool in bringing more awareness to missing young people. She asked that community members be aware of their surroundings to help find more missing people.
“The idea behind the aggressive social media push is to increase community awareness of the missing individuals and assist with bringing them home,” Mikhaylova wrote. “We believe it has been successful.”