Imagine that you are driving home from work one day. Suddenly a deer or some other obstacle appears in your lane. You swerve and moments later you are flying over an embankment. Your car comes to rest about twenty feet down a ravine in a small patch of blackberry bushes. Bruised and bleeding you try to free yourself but you are hopelessly pinned in the wreckage. You can’t reach your cell phone. No one saw the accident and you are fairly certain that your vehicle is not visible from the roadway. You wonder how long it will take for someone to notice your absence, call the police and send help.
If you are 18-years old or older—you may be in for a very long wait. In 1974 Congress passed legislation to protect your privacy. In doing so they also laid the foundation for policies and procedures which will cripple the efforts of anyone who tries to find you.
The Privacy Act of 1974 was put into effect to control the way that our federal government collects, shares and uses the information that its agencies maintain on individual citizens. The Act prohibits disclosure of information without the written consent of the individual, unless that disclosure happens to meet one of twelve statutory exceptions. The Act regulates federal agencies. Yet, after it was enacted, police departments and various state and local agencies have followed suit adopting policies which preclude the sharing of personal information.
In order for police to investigate the disappearance (and over-ride the right to privacy) of someone over the age of eighteen, a missing person report must be filed. To file a missing person report you must check one of the following criteria: (1) Disability. The person who is missing is in danger because they have a mental or physical handicap, (2) Catastrophe. The person is missing because there has been a plane crash or some other major catastrophe, (3) Involuntary. The person, who is missing, is missing under circumstances indicating that the disappearance was not voluntary or (4) Endangered. The person is missing under circumstances indicating that he/she is in danger.
But, what happens when a person disappears and does not meet the necessary criteria? In Seattle, Washington, 33-year old Tanya Rider spent eight days fighting for her life in her mangled vehicle while her husband pleaded with authorities to help him search for her. When middle-aged couple, Wayne and Dianne Guay, did not show up for a family gathering their grown children knew that something was wrong. Because Mr. and Mrs. Guay were adults, police refused to assist the family and would not allow them to file a missing person report. After four heart-wrenching days the family hired a private helicopter which flew over the couple’s route and located their vehicle submerged in a North Carolina swamp.
Even if the police take a report they may determine that a disappearance does not require investigation.
In the case of Tanya Rider, Sheriff’s Deputy Rodney Chinnick said, “Adults are entitled to privacy.” He explained that Rider’s missing person report did not contain any of the elements that would trigger a search.
“It’s not that we didn’t take him seriously,” Chinnick said. “We don’t take every missing person report on adults… If we did, we’d be doing nothing but going after missing person reports.”
While the Privacy Act has become somewhat of a scapegoat, the above comments from King County officials indicate that there is something more in the mix. In actuality, we live in a world where disgruntled husbands or fed-up housewives intentionally disappear and carefree young adults will lie around on a beach somewhere without calling home to let their folks know they’re okay. When we see cases like these we can hardly blame the police for not wanting to investigate every disappearance.
The real challenge would be to weed out frivolous reports from those that are in trouble and actually do need help. I’m sure that’s what police hope to do by establishing criteria, yet I wonder if they are following these procedures too rigidly.
In December of 2006, Danelle Ballengee went for a jog in the Moab desert. She did not plan to be gone more than an hour, but when she fell 60 feet and fractured her pelvis— everything changed. When Danelle did not return home that night, concerned neighbors called her parents and concerned parents called the police. The local police in Moab, Utah did not offer a blanket response based on policies and procedures stemming from the Privacy Act, nor did they respond in accordance with rigid pre-set criteria. The deputy drove to her home and then to the spot in the desert where she often went running. There he found her abandon vehicle. He drove back to town and organized a search team. A few hours later, the search team encountered Danelle’s dog who led them to his beloved master on “day 3” of her ordeal.
Sometimes everything works just as it should, but that only happens when we put human life above policies, above what we perceive to be someone’s right to privacy and above our busy schedules.