(Published: Monday, June 11, 2001)
WASHINGTON -- D.C. police have not kept comprehensive statistics on missing adults since 1995, a lapse that has prevented investigators from knowing whether the disappearance of Chandra Levy of Modesto has anything in common with hundreds of other missing-person cases in the city.
Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer said the missing-persons unit was decentralized six years ago, leaving each of the city's seven police districts to handle cases internally. Since then, there has been no consistent record-keeping and no systematic approach to tracking how many adults are missing and how many are found.
"Consequently, there (are) not good citywide records of who's missing, who's come back and any patterns," Gainer said. "You're going to have difficulty managing the problem if you don't have some sense of the problem."
Gainer said that when Levy disappeared last month, police wondered:
Did any of the other missing-person cases in the district share similarities that might help them solve the disappearance of the 24-year-old?
Was as much attention being devoted to those other missing adults?
Police were dismayed to learn that they could not answer either question.
Without good case records, Gainer said, it's also difficult for police officials to gauge how well detectives are handling cases.
Gainer said the inability to compare missing-persons data has not hampered the Levy investigation. "I don't think (knowing the data) would hurt, but I don't think it has interfered."
But last week, after inquiries from The Washington Post on whether police missing-person records showed any cases similar to Levy's, Gainer issued a directive to officers to begin reporting all missing-adult cases to each district's regional operational commander.
Based on recent visits to each of the seven police districts, police determined that 558 of the missing-person cases reported this year are still open. But Gainer said those figures may be inaccurate because of "poor record-keeping."
The only other overall count of missing people in the district comes from the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. But those records may also be unreliable, Gainer said, because although a name is entered in the database whenever a case is opened, it is not always removed when the case is closed.
"My hypothesis, based on the records I've seen, is that we probably have a lot more missing people in the federal computer system than should be there," he said.
Over the next month, Gainer said, all officers will be reminded at roll calls that whenever a missing person is located, the paperwork to have the case pulled from the FBI database must be filled out.
D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden, whose office examines unidentified corpses, routinely gets called when police receive a report of a missing person. He agreed that the police department's system for tracking missing adults needs improvement.
Gainer said he did not focus on missing-adult trends until he had an "epiphany" with the Levy case. "When we were putting all these resources (on the case), it was very natural to ask: 'Are we treating this case any different than any other case?'" he said. "And in order to make that determination, you had to find out what your base line was, and that was when we found out the base line wasn't there."