Police need to be trained not to discriminate against black families in missing person cases, say experts
Missing People, a UK charity supporting missing people and their families, has released new guidance in response to disclosures of bias faced by families when reporting their loved one missing to the police, based upon months of research into disparities around the matter.
The charity heard from ethnic minority families who shared experiences of discrimination including feeling they were not listened to, that their missing loved one was not seen as a high priority and struggles to get the same level of media coverage as others for their missing person.
Black people, in particular, continue to be over-represented in missing person numbers, making up 14 per cent of missing person reports, which is four times their proportion of the general population (3 per cent) across England and Wales.
Discussing the new guidance, Jo Youle, chief executive of Missing People, said: “Last year, we asked people with lived experience to come forward and help us to better understand this issue. We also reviewed historic files and spoke to professionals, including our front-line team.
“We have begun to identify areas within the process where people feel they have been let down by agencies.
“We can also see the impact this has, both on the family reporting, and on the missing person themselves; we believe there now needs to be more research carried out to better understand the nature and scale of any discrimination faced, as well as to examine the over-representation of Black people in missing persons statistics.”
Missing People has recommended that police forces review the language used in missing person records, monitor decision-making processes and review assigned risk assessment levels.
It further suggests that police forces create supportive opportunities for engagement with ethnic minority families affected by a missing incident to better understand their experiences and explore any issues through the use of Independent Advisory Groups, for example.
A freedom of information request to police forces in the UK from Missing People asking for details of complaints relating to missing persons cases revealed that of those that were reported, all of the complaints in 2020-21 about discrimination were related to race rather than any other protected characteristic.
Asked about racial discrimination, one police officer said: “As one of very few minority police officers, I usually ended up dealing with Bame [black, Asian and minority ethnic] missing persons and/or their families.
“White officers would generally do computer checks and leave it at that; supervising officers would mark up and falsify records to show enquiries were being made.”
There has been some research into the media coverage of missing people of different ethnic backgrounds, which has shown that appeals for missing people of colour have been less likely to get media attention or engagement on social media.
In response to the inequity in coverage, Missing People plans to work with partner organisations, journalists and media agencies to produce guidance to ensure more equal coverage and public engagement with appeals for missing people of all ethnicities.
Following the disappearance of her son Richard Okorogheye in April 2020, who was later found to have died, Evidence Joel told The Independent that she felt police did not take his disappearance seriously at the beginning and treated her like a “nuisance”.
“If Richard was that colour, blue eyes, maybe the reaction would have been different immediately: that’s what they say,” she said.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) served misconduct notices on two Metropolitan Police officers in September after concerns about the police response to Richard’s case.
The concerns have been echoed by other parents of missing black people; the mother of student Joy Morgan, who went missing in 2019 and was later found murdered, told the BBC her case didn’t garner widespread attention: “Because my daughter was black and because I was black, I was not newsworthy.”