A dedicated group of investigators is now overseeing all missing person cases across the city to standardize and improve police practices, identify trends, and bring closure to families in search of their loved ones.
The Missing Person Unit (MPU), a subsection of Homicide, will monitor the 4,200 cases on-average each year to ensure:
- Policies and procedures are being followed
- Front-line investigators have the tools and support they need
- Suspicious trends are identified and unidentified remains are matched
The 16 police Divisions will continue to lead missing person cases unless the Homicide Unit invokes its mandate to investigate.
“The creation of the unit is giving us organizational level of oversight and consistency so we can really drive toward investigative excellence. But the model is leveraging and utilizing our field investigators and providing an organizational perspective on every case,” says Staff Superintendent Myron Demkiw. “It’s much more detail-oriented, consistent approach and we’re much better able to see trends emerging.”
Demkiw says although the unit was being considered for several years, Projects Houston and Prism, which looked in to the disappearance of men from the Church St. Village later evolving into the investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce MacArthur, focused the Service on the value of the unit as well as the community looking for improvements to policing investigation.
“We also listened to the community, and we continue to listen to them to improve what we do” says Demkiw. “We have a greater capacity to understand what is happening across the city and to provide really the best possible response. We’re far better off today than this time last year and as we evolve with our processes, we’re learning.”
Detective Sergeant Stacy Gallant, who leads the MPU, says reports of missing people will have a great range of police responses, noting that a six-year-old boy who wandered away from his house in the middle of the night will likely get a different initial police response than a 20-year-old man who often does not call family for days at a time.
“They are on a case-by-case basis and you have to look at them for what they are, but at the same time there are certain standards we must adhere to so we are taking every case seriously,” says Gallant. “We’re trying to get every case to a certain level, we’re not going to be successful to find everyone in 24 hours but we still have an obligation to the person who reported it to find that person – if they took the time to report it, they’re concerned.”
At this point, the MPU is also going backwards through electronic files and back into carbon copy files to ensure no case is left cold – work that will continue. So far, the investigators have closed 300 cases as they comb through thousands of reports, locating most people but also finding some had died. Most importantly, they were able to report their findings to family and friends. They were able to use the open source material on the internet as well as partner agencies.
Detective Mary Vruna, a veteran Sex Crimes and Homicide investigator, who leads day-to-day operations of the MPU, says in many cases the missing persons just don’t want to be found.
“It’s not illegal to be missing, we just want to make sure they are safe,” Vruna says, noting those who report the person missing will be notified they are safe. However, it is up to the missing person whether they want to share their contact information or location with the person who reported them missing because of privacy concerns.
The MPU, which has four Detective Constables are passionate about their new role and bring a vast swath of investigative experience in large-scale, detailed investigations as well as computer forensics skills.
Gallant says the unit will also focus on developing information-sharing partnerships with shelters, hospitals and other agencies in order to ascertain that someone is okay while respecting their privacy. The MPU will be able to support Divisional officers through these information sharing partnerships instead of individual investigators having to form links on their own.
Currently, police do not have authority to obtain phone or bank records of missing people, because there is no allegation of criminality in the cases.
Investigators will also highlight ongoing cases where investigative efforts have been exhausted and police believe public attention can help solve the case. Some recent cases:
- Russell Tucker, 53, was reported missing in January 2017. It is reported by his family that he may want to live off the grid, however, investigators have not found a trace Tucker on government databases or online. Investigators hope that anyone with information can help find Tucker, or he can contact police himself.
- A recent composite image has been released of a man found dead at the Lansdowne subway station on Friday, July 28, at 10:52 p.m. The Coroner’s Office of Ontario commissioned the new sketch to help identify the man. He is believed to be 25 to 40 years old, 5'1" to 5'7" and weighed 147 pounds . At the time of his death he was wearing blue Aeropostale jeans (size 30), an Adidas T-shirt, NSS canvas shoes (size 12), and a Europa Denzines belt (size 32). There are currently 63 open investigations into unidentified human remains in Toronto dating back to 1953.
The MPU also hopes to empower the public to keep information about their loved ones at their fingertips in case they go missing. Recent photos, social media handles, contacts for their friends and associates are all important to investigators.
Vruna gives the example of a friend with a developmentally delayed child who takes a photo of him before he goes out on his own just in case he were to get lost.
“We want people to own that information at all times,” Vruna says.
Caregivers of vulnerable people can also sign up to the MedicAlert system (medicalert.ca), which Toronto Police can access 24/7 to help identify people who are lost and unable to give their name and address.
Investigators are hopeful to ensure that when someone does go missing, and if it’s warranted given the circumstances of the case, personal items that contain their DNA will be collected so that if remains are found they won’t have to revisit the family.
“Instead of stirring up emotions or getting someone’s hopes up we will already have this information available to us. Those are difficult situations to deal with on a compassionate level it will assist us and expedite this item that belonged to person whether DNA taken at that time or not,” Vruna says.
Gallant says the work of the Missing Person Unit will continue to evolve.
“The procedure for missing persons is under review and will face a number of changes to make things more efficient and accountable.”
Visit the Missing Person Unit webpage