KCPD data proves fears true: More Black people reported missing and cases unsolved

For months, Black leaders urged Kansas City police to provide public reports on how many people were reported missing in the city and how many cases were resolved.

Such information, it was argued, would help answer community members’ questions about how many Black people were going missing and what was being done to find them.

Now, after the Kansas City Police Department relaunched its missing persons squad last month, it has begun producing those reports.

The data shows what many Black leaders had feared and suspected: Black adults and children have been reported missing in Kansas City in significantly greater numbers than other racial groups. And their cases remain unsolved more often.

In its May 10 analysis, the police department reported that Black adults accounted for 11 of the 15 active adult missing persons cases.

Black children represent almost half of the 45 active missing cases in Kansas City, according to police statistics, in a city that is about 24% Black.

“The data substantiates what advocates in the Black community have stated all along, there’s a very real problem of missing Black people in Kansas City,” said Michele Watley, founder of the nonprofit Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, who has led public discussions about missing Black women.

Lisa Benson, left, looks on as Major Kari Thompson of the Kansas City Police Department, center, addresses concerns about missing Black women in Kansas City during “Black and Missing,” a community forum Saturday, Nov. 18, 2022, at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch Library. Thompson said 18 Black women have been killed this year in Kansas City. The event was hosted by Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet and Hot 103 Jamz whose Julee Jones, right, moderated the discussion.

“The data provided in these daily missing persons reports shine a light on the glaring disparities in the number of missing Black people in comparison to others in the Kansas City community,” Watley said.

Community leaders have questioned whether police take reports of missing Black people seriously enough and experts and advocates said the department was not following best practices in missing persons cases.

Among the gaps pointed to by advocates: The police department did not maintain a list of active missing person cases that was accessible to the public. It did not require the missing persons unit to file monthly reports tracking which cases are being closed or going unsolved, and it did not track the demographics of missing persons.

As a result, those who provide support to families of the missing say it’s nearly impossible to know what resources police are using to search for specific missing persons, or whether Black and brown communities are being disproportionately affected.

Missing persons unit revived

In March, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said she was reviving the missing persons squad, which had been shut down by the previous police chief, in response to those concerns from community leaders.

A few weeks later on April 11, Maj. Leslie Foreman, who oversees the unit, said that the KCPD had laid out several new steps to be taken by the department’s recently revived missing persons unit. The revamped unit began working on April 16.

Those steps included maintaining the department’s own public list of active cases, releasing reports on which cases were closed and which remained open. Additionally, the department would use the National Missing and Unidentified Person System, or NamUs, which is open to the public, as advocates have urged.

As of Friday, the department still had not publicized a list of active missing persons cases and has yet to say which investigations they have closed.

And the police department has not committed to entering all missing persons into the NamUS database right away, as advocates and experts have recommended.

That database is used at the discretion of detectives, Capt. Corey Carlisle, a KCPD spokesperson said in an email to The Star.

Carlisle said missing persons are already added to the statewide law enforcement database, called MULES and the National Crime Information Center or NCIC.

Those law enforcement databases are not open to the public.

KCPD missing persons report by Ian Cummings on Scribd

Detectives may request missing person fliers be sent to media outlets and social media to help gather more information and for public awareness, Carlisle said. But the police department has not said that it would do so in each case.

“Each missing person’s case is unique and investigated on a case by case basis,” Carlisle said. “Each case presents its own set of challenges in which detectives use investigative tools in order to navigate the nuances of those challenges.”

Criticism of police investigations

Black leaders have pointed to past experiences that have led some in the community to lose trust in the discretion of Kansas City police.

Some criticized Kansas City police for not alerting the public to the disappearance of Oscar Cabral, 18, when his family reported him missing on March 18. His body was found five days later near the heavily wooded trails inside Swope Park. His death is being investigated as a homicide.

About two weeks before that, police found the body of Jayden Robker, 13, in a pond near his Northland home. Police had delayed four days before informing the public of Jayden’s disappearance. At the time, police said they had difficulty getting a current photo from the family.

Since then, The Star has reported that Jayden told police he was being abused by his stepfather months before he was found dead.

Much of the recent discussion around missing persons in Kansas City stems from the case of a 22-year-old Black woman who escaped from the Excelsior Springs house of a man who she said picked her up in Kansas City and kept her captive for weeks.

Kansas City police had disregarded as rumors a report in the community that a serial killer was targeting Black women.

Because of those incidents, the Black and Missing Foundation, a Maryland-based nonprofit, recently included Kansas City as part of its 16-city billboard campaign mean to raise awareness of missing persons of color.

Family and friends of Kansas City’s Oscar E. Cabral circulated flyers after he went missing in March 2023. His body was found near Swope Park on March 23.

“Over the years, we have seen an uptick in cases of missing persons cases from Kansas City,” said Natalie Wilson, one of the group’s co-founders. “We especially have been keeping a close eye on Kansas City since local activists and community media have been raising concerns that a serial killer has been targeting Black women. These concerns were dismissed as rumors by law enforcement.”

Wilson said it is critical for the KCPD to establish policies and procedures to ensure fairness in missing persons cases regardless of race, gender, and ZIP code. That could be accomplished through enhanced sensitivity and cultural diversity training as well as partnering with organizations such as BAMFI to help in amplifying the cases, she said.

Additionally, the public alert system should be enhanced to include all missing persons beyond the Amber or Silver alerts. This would encourage news organizations to work with law enforcement to help share information about missing persons, Wilson said.

In its May 3 analysis, KCPD reported that 13 out of the 16 active adult missing persons cases were Black. The report also said that 40 Black children were reported missing out of 50 open cases.

Several of the active Black adult missing persons cases date back to May 26, 1989 and one was as recent as Feb. 22.

“To know that African Americans make up more than 80 percent of the unsolved cases is alarming and speaks to the lack of resources that can aid in the recovery,” she said. “Sadly, missing persons of color do not receive the same level of media coverage or law enforcement resources as their white counterparts; therefore, their cases remain open four times longer than their white counterparts. This epidemic is not only happening in Kansas City, but on a national level as well.”

A daily report counting missing persons and runaway juveniles is available on the KCPD website, much like the daily homicide analysis the police department already makes available.

Since Oct. 1, the police department recorded 418 missing Black adults and juveniles. That was about 55% of all the people reported missing as of Wednesday.

“We have to keep in mind that this report only accounts for missing persons that have been reported to the police department,” Watley said. “Challenges around reporting a loved one missing is also another issue raised by Black advocates and this report doesn’t include that data.”

“The data in these reports clearly reflect the urgent need for the department to both prioritize and direct resources towards strategies and solutions to address the highly disproportionate number of Black men women and children that have gone missing in the city,” Watley said.

Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the KCPD’s decision to disband the missing persons unit last year would not be uncommon among police departments across the country facing staffing shortages and high crime rates.

“This likely led to difficult decisions like this,” Novak said. “But fortunately they see the importance of reinstating it.”

National statistics showed that people of color (particularly Black) make up a disproportionate number of people reported missing.

In 2022, 35% of all missing persons, and 39% of persons under age 18, were Black, Novak said.

KCPD had previously assigned missing persons cases to detectives who also handled other assignments.

The revived squad, which is made up of seven detectives and a supervisor, will work missing persons cases in addition to non-criminal death investigations such as suicides and drug overdoses.

“One of the major concerns raised has been centered on transparency; specifically transparency around processes, deciding how missing persons reports are handled, data and other information that one would expect from their police department.” Watley said.

“The Kansas City Missouri Police Department kept its word in providing public access to their daily missing persons report and I hope they continue to take steps to be as transparent with the public they serve as possible.”