Ontario cops set up online missing persons resource

The Ontario Provincial Police and the provincial Office of the Chief Coroner launched a Web site on Tuesday to help track down missing persons and solve decades-old crimes.

The Web site, available through the OPP’s main portal, features pictures of missing persons and representations of unidentified human remains. Distinguishing marks and characteristics – height, weight, piercings, tattoos, scars, etc. – are also provided to provide the maximum amount of detail to visitors of the site.

“We thought, this is a great way of making sure the public are aware of the type of information that we have and assisting with clearing up missing persons cases,” said Dr. Barry McLellan, Chief Coroner for Ontario.

“When you look at some of these images and pictures of tattoos and things like that, you have to believe that somebody out there . . . will be able to say, ‘Well, I know who that is.’”

It was an obvious fit for the OPP and Coroner’s Office to collaborate on the project, said Det. Sgt. Kim Peters, manager of the OPP’s Missing Persons and Unidentified Bodies/Remains Unit. There are currently about 150 outstanding human remains cases and 300 missing persons cases.

“It just made sense to us that there is going to be an overlap. There are going to be missing persons out there, especially long term missing persons, who may appear in the coroner’s files. We felt it was important to have both databases together to compare data sets,” he said.

The OPP will be responsible for maintaining the Web site. Missing persons data is culled from the OPP’s Microsoft Access database and uploaded via another database that was custom-built for the project. Data from the Coroner’s Office is collected from various police jurisdictions across the province and uploaded on a manual basis. McLellan said he expects the process will become more automated, but the delicate nature of the subject matter requires that it be carefully reviewed before it is posted.

“There needs to be an element of discretion of when the information is put on the Web site, but also what (is put on the Web site),” he said. The goal is to “assist families and friends with bringing closure to these cases where they may have wondered where their friend or loved one is for years.”

The Web site is the first of its kind in Canada, but there are other examples in the U.S. Clark County in Nevada has used an online database of missing persons photos for several years with some success.

Eventually, the OPP will move from its Access database onto a SQL Server platform, said Peters, which will offer the police service more data search capabilities. “For the initial launch it was just a matter of getting the data in there and available and able to upload to the Web site. It was essentially about building a framework and we’ll worry about the functionalities later,” he said.

The OPP’s site is already having an impact. Prior to its launch, several missing persons cases were solved through the act of compiling the data. “As we were developing the Web site, we had requests for information and that facilitated the (discovery) of some people, “ said Peters.

He added that the OPP is open to working with other police jurisdictions to increase the amount of missing persons data that is available to the public.

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