How Long Does a Person Need to Be Missing Before Police Are Obligated to Look for Them?

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File a report for a missing person immediately after you realize that person cannot be located. Despite dramatic portrayals of a mandatory waiting period, law enforcement agencies must take your report. How that report is processed after the initial review influences how and when police will search for a missing person.

File a  Missing Persons Report

The absence of a child may be noted quickly, but it could take weeks to realize that a sibling or a parent has not checked in. As soon as you determine a person is missing and not just uncommunicative, file a report with your local law enforcement agency. For a missing person with a medical condition, such as dementia or diabetes, an immediate report can make all the difference. If foul play is suspected, quick notification allows law enforcement to begin collecting information for a potential criminal investigation before the case goes cold.

Information to Include

Provide law enforcement with as much information about the missing person as possible. Reach out to friends and family members if there are questions you cannot answer, such as identifying the clothing the person was wearing or tattoos and scars. Give officers as much descriptive information as possible, such as the person's full legal name, birthday, age, gender, race, height, weight, hair color and eye color. Search your phone or social media to find pictures of the missing person so a photo can be distributed with the report. Officers also need to know when the person was last seen and any information you have about their disappearance.

Law Enforcement Takes the Next Steps

For all missing persons, officers log the personal information into the National Crime Information Center Missing Person File, a searchable database. If law enforcement personnel come into contact with the person for any reason, such as a traffic stop or an arrest, an NCIC search will show the missing person status. The NCIC records feature both adults and children and are retained until a person is found or the record is canceled by the filing agency.

After this step, the nature of the disappearance dictates the next moves of law enforcement. For missing persons who are not believed to be in danger, a press release sent to local media is a common next step in the investigation. A dispatcher also frequently broadcasts a message regarding the missing person to all local officers. A larger probe with a crime scene investigation may be launched if, for example, the person disappeared from a local store while his car was running in the parking lot. In cases where a ground search is appropriate, such as a small child who disappeared in a wooded area or a dementia patient left a nursing facility, agencies deploy extra officers to patrol and search the area.

Amplify the Search

After filing a report with law enforcement, consider also taking your message to the public independently. Post on social media about your missing loved one and ask friends and family to share the information. Put up pictures at local stores and contact local media outlets. If you think that a ground search beyond the efforts by law enforcement is necessary, ask for community volunteers and organize your own search while keeping the official investigator informed.


  • Police are obligated to take a missing persons report whenever it is submitted. Simply reporting someone missing does not compel law enforcement to launch a door-to-door search, but it does log the person as missing in the National Crime Information Center database.

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