The Debunker: Are People Only Considered "Missing" After 24 Hours?

by Ken Jennings

Unless you’ve dedicated a lot of time to breaking the law, most of what you know about the cops comes from movies and TV, and those may or may not be just the facts, ma’am. All month, Ken Jennings will be exploring the “thin blue line” between police fact and police fiction. If you actually thought this stuff was true—well, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the comments section.

Police Myth #4: You Have to Be Gone for 24 Hours to Be a “Missing Person.”

You’ve seen it in any number of TV and movie dramas: the frustrated loved one getting turned away from a precinct when they try to report a kidnapping. “I’m sorry, (sir/ma’am),” says the unhelpful desk sergeant. “Until (he/she) has been missing for 24 hours, we can’t file a missing persons report. Just go home. I’m sure your (lover/child/confused elderly person) will turn up.” Can you believe it? The red tape! The bureaucracy! We the viewers, of course, already know that the missing person in question is in a (car trunk/sex dungeon/shallow grave near the highway). The suspense mounts.

In fact, there’s no such rule, which makes me wonder how this myth started. Should we blame lazy TV writers or lazy law enforcement? Peruse the websites for various state justice or public safety departments, and you’ll see the same sentence time and again, usually with capital letters or italics: “There is NO waiting period for reporting a person missing.” In general, police officers are required to take every report of every missing person, whether they’ve been gone for an hour or a week. (Of course, how they respond to that report will vary, based on the circumstances and perceived urgency of the case.)

If the missing person is under 18, this is a matter of federal statute. The National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 forbids states from enacting any waiting period before declaring a child missing. Why? Because that other TV cliché, the one about how most crimes are solved in the first 48 hours if they get solved at all, is pretty much true. In cases where the missing person is clearly vulnerable (a child, someone with dementia or some kind of handicap), cops know the clock is ticking and will want to begin the search immediately. So don’t sit at home for 24 hours on the advice of a dimly remembered 1978 episode of The Rockford Files.

Quick Quiz: What actor recently told an interviewer, “I don’t think there will be a Taken 3. She can’t get taken again. That’s just bad parenting”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.