AROUND 2,300 people go missing each year in Glasgow, triggering search operations that can end in tragedy or joy.
There are few expectations more anxious than that of a family member desperate to reunite with their loved one.
Investigations are often complex and involve several specialist officers – from aerial and ground search teams to the canine unit and dive unit.
These hunts are coordinated by highly trained officers known as Police Approved Search Advisors (PolSA).
Sergeant Austin Burke is based in Glasgow and has carried out hundreds of search operations.
These can be planned in advance for a person who has been long missing, but where the intelligence informs the police of their last sighting or known location.
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Austin said: “Either way, we’re going to populate this area with licensed searchers.
“The reason we used licensed search agents is that it might be more difficult in terms of the terrain if it’s an outdoor area where other specialists can’t cover or if they want to can -be a higher level of assurance that someone is not in that area.
“It’s not one size fits all.
“As a police research adviser, we use all the available assets we have, but they are not always available to us.
“The helicopter can’t fly in bad weather, the marine diving unit can’t go to certain areas to bring in their boats.
“It’s not an exact science, but it all depends on intelligence.”
PolSAs undergo a four-week training course at the Police National Search Center in England and, on successful completion, are licensed by the Home Office.
The license, which covers counter-terrorism and research, allows officers to provide research and tactical advice to investigative teams.
PolSA is attached to a research team operations support unit and mobilizes these teams where they are needed.
Search teams, as reported earlier this week in the Glasgow Times, are also authorized by the Home Office and these groups work hand in hand.
In the support unit there are 60 approved search officers with five teams covering the west of Scotland, all with two or three PolSAs on each shift.
Although he is based out west, Austin will work across the country, either traveling to where research is taking place or providing support remotely.
When a call comes in indicating that a person is missing, the information is processed and noted according to the urgency of the situation.
Police will look at a myriad of questions such as if it is an immediate concern, what information there is about the person, if they have dementia or if they are a child.
Austin added: “Every call is important, some are more urgent than others and that is unfortunately the nature of missing persons.”
Responders will be dispatched to the person making the report to gather as much background information as possible and they will give another note.
They will collect witness statements and profile the missing person.
If the person has been missing for several days, Austin says, officers must “go back in time” to search for CCTV, banking transactions and their last known movements.
He added: “There is a lot of information that can be captured, but the longer the time frame, the more difficult it is to gather that information.”
Sometimes missing people aren’t actually missing – maybe they went out for the day without telling their family, maybe they just locked themselves out of the house.
Only cases categorized as high-risk arrive in PolSAs like Austin, and some medium-risk cases as well.
They will then start looking for the specialized assistance search teams they need and they will produce an advice document with general information on the missing person’s profile.
This profile and other information will go into the “National Missing Persons App” where it can be viewed by all officers involved in the case and constantly updated with new information.
Austin said: “Voluntary disappearances tend to be the most prevalent.
“A person made a conscious decision to withdraw from their home or place of work and not tell anyone or disappeared for various reasons but simply did not communicate where they were going.”
Statistics are an essential tool in research with PolSA using a dataset called the Grampian statistics which uses information on missing persons cases over the past 20 years.
Austin added: “It’s not an exact science but it tells us that someone in this age group is most likely to be on foot, in a car.
“The amount of time they’ve been out more or less tells us how far away they’ll be or the most frequent area they might go to.
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“It’s an investigative starter for 10 in terms of where to start building our search metrics.”
The information during the search will constantly change.
Austin said: “Immediate family can give him a lot of information.
“But then when we talk to their best friend three or four days later, it turns out they weren’t giving the family a whole lot, but they spilled their guts out to their best friend and potentially, the friend has more actionable information for us.”
Some missing people don’t want to be found – they may be considering starting a new life on their own or with a new partner.
In these cases, the police will make sure the person is safe, but they are not obliged to share their whereabouts details with their family.
Austin said: “We would let the family know they are safe and healthy, but we wouldn’t give their location.
“It can be difficult, but it’s basically an issue between family members and one that we shouldn’t get involved in.”
Research did not stop during the pandemic but added pressure on teams, especially in the early days of the crisis.
Austin said: “We had to deploy in white coveralls and the proper masks and gloves, to make sure we were protecting the public and ourselves, because at the end of the day, if our department was wiped out by covid, we wouldn’t. would have no response to high-risk missing people.
“The first days were very difficult, very demanding, quite nervous.
“But once we had a protocol in place on how to be covid compliant, our teams stepped up and were great.
“There was an unwavering determination to give the public the service they deserve.
“Which we always strive to do, but especially during lockdowns when people were a little more stressed and scared, we just want them to feel safe in their policing and what we can respond and give them.
“And that’s always true, but especially in times of adversity.
“It sounds corny but that was how I felt.”
Austin has worked in a variety of roles within Police Scotland but says missing persons has been “the most rewarding”.
He said: “For the obvious reason – to return loved ones to their families.
“There is no greater reward for keeping police safe than this.”
He added: “It’s not easy. You have to learn to leave things at the door, but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about every missing person and it brings its own rewards, but it can. also getting dark in places..
“It’s a bit weird to talk about it because we never take callbacks, we always work in the shadows.
“We very rarely get acknowledgments and we don’t really care because that’s the job we do.”