On May 2, 2017, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law “Help Find the Missing Act” – Missing Persons Legislation — following a line of other successful passages in states like New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
However, other state initiatives, like the similar Federal bill, have struggled to gain passage.
So what made Tennessee’s effort different?
Join webinar presenter Todd Matthews of NamUs to learn:
- The successful creation and passage of Missing Persons Legislation for Tennessee
- The roadblocks encountered, and how they were addressed, and
- How other states can replicate the Tennessee model.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about passing missing persons legislation: the processes, the procedures, anticipating roadblocks, etc. So just to give us some backstory behind, start from the very beginning. What was the impetus to get you started in helping to pass the law?
Todd Matthews: We looked at it nationally at first to help find the missing, several years ago, and it did just not quite make it through. There were a lot more layers in the national law because it encompassed 50 states.
So I began looking at the process at a local level, at a state level. I had talked to my state representatives before about things I wanted to require the state to do. I realized that a lot of people were not using NamUs because it wasn’t mandated, and I think that it has to be. That’s one of the testimonies that I provided my state representative when I testified in front of the committee. I literally said it: “We have to have a state law to require the state to take advantage of the federally funded forensic services.”
[There are many reasons why an organization might not use NamUs.] Some of it is from a learning standpoint: maybe they don’t know they have a national database because they didn’t need it before now?
So in a county like mine, (Overton County, Tennessee), we have one missing person – just one long-term missing person case. We have no unidentified bodies. So NamUs is not going to be the first thing on somebody’s mind in my county in Tennessee. It’s not something they use daily. It’s not something that they have a need to think about on a daily basis.
But the bottom line is: we need state laws. Initially, I think they’re going to think it’s a lot more work, but I think they’re going to realize, they’re going to get a lot out of this: things that are going to make their lives easier.
[NamUs] has a full staff of people that’s will help you do a lot of things and I think people are going to appreciate it. The trick is to get the state involved in creating the legislation: bring in people from the state (legislature), get a champion in the law enforcement who can testify, and then help create it.
“Get to know the process,
and understand that if you don’t get exactly what you want in the bill in the first round,
just remember that’s what amendments are for!
JCH: Avoiding legalese or political jargon — translating it for the average person who’s never been through the political process — what does your piece of legislation actually do or accomplish? How does it help making solving crime easier?
Image Credit: WCTV Todd: Well, I’ve always heard the saying — and I didn’t know until now how true it was – making law is like making sausage, the end product is good, but you don’t want to see how it happens. And that’s really true in the stance that my bill actually requires that after 30 days of being missing or 30 days of being unidentified, law enforcement or the medical examiner, is required to make an entry into Namus.
And that doesn’t mean [that law enforcement or the ME has to have all of the data at that point]: they might not have a family reference sample or DNA immediately. It just means that an entry goes into NamUs and we start the process.
Maybe they don’t want it published today for any reason, for an investigative purpose. But we have to be made aware of it, by case entry, by 30 days. We don’t want them to feel like it’s going to force them to do certain things; we’re just going to be there to help.
We do have a backlog. There are a lot of cases in the state that have not been entered. But this way we can go back slowly and look at the process and try to get the rest of the cases in there. It’s going to open the doors for a lot of conversation with a lot of agencies. We’ll be able to ask “what else do you have? Do you have other cases that need to go into NamUs? We’ll help you.”
JCH: Are there other states that have missing persons legislation? Are there other states who are also trying to get this kind of legislation passed?
Todd: There are other states: California has a really strong reporting requirement and NamUs has been mentioned through some of the California statutes and policies.
Photo Credit: The Journal.ieConnecticut has a very NamUs-centered law that they’ve put into place. New York put the unidentified 30-day requirement in their legislation. In Tennessee, I wanted to do more. I realized that I just need to be a citizen of the state because people have been creating these laws without going back and talking to somebody who knows how NamUs operates. So it’s important as a citizen to go to my representative and to not only say: “Here’s what we need to do,” but also as a subject matter expert of how NamUs operates.
So Tennessee would be the fourth state that has this kind of legislation, but certainly the most inclusive of what we need, and also maximizes how to get the best out of NamUs.
So as a citizen, I want to have the fullest advantage: you’re paying taxes for NamUs and you should get the most out of NamUs. NamUs should have as much information as possible to do a good job for our citizens.
JCH: And are there other states that are trying to work on this type of legislation?
Todd: A lot of states have asked to borrow the language of the Tennessee bill and we’re more than happy to give it to them. (We borrowed some language from New York and Connecticut.) Now, I have suggested that they massage it a little bit and get more state friendly.
We passed it through both sides [of our legislature], unopposed, 100%. I really felt like I could get that law through but I never in the wildest dreams thought that it would be completely unopposed. No one even abstained from the vote. That tells me that the language is really good.
So we just have to tailor it to each state. Alabama, Michigan, and North Carolina have copies [of our legislation]. A lot of states are in part-time legislation so it might be next year before you see things. But the language is good enough: A lot of people touched it. There were a lot of edits in making it what we need it to be.
There’s one more important thing that we added to it that I think is important: you can’t require DNA because families have to donate DNA. You can’t mandate that they collect samples when the family actually has to say, “Ok you may swab my cheek for DNA.”
We did require law enforcement to ask for dental records, very specifically. We wrote in the bill that they need to ask right up front. It’ll become clear very quickly to law enforcement, that when they put this practice in place, why we’re not waiting. It needs to be a requirement. They all see the fruit of that labor once they’ve experienced it — we just need to get it right away.
“You can’t put a puzzle together until you have all the pieces on the table and figure it out.
We’re not going to solve these missing persons cases without all the pieces.”
JCH: When you say the states need to massage the content or make it a little more state-specific, help me understand what that means.
Todd: Tennessee statute, as written, doesn’t fit needs in Kentucky like our state agency’s is the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. But the state agency in Kentucky is the Kentucky State Police. Kentucky uses coroners, but in Tennessee, we use mostly medical examiners in the regional forensic centers. [So the law needs to be] customized to that state and speak directly to the individuals, and specifically what they’re going to do. You can just scratch out Tennessee and put Kentucky: the language has to be consistent with the processes of the state so it empowers everybody.
One of the questions that has come up is, what’s the punishment phase if people are not compliant? And I think that’s something we’re going to look at, compliance. If you’re audited in your lab or your office, are you compliant with state law and whatever punishment for that is?
JCH: I understand you’ve seen many states try to pass similar legislation and run into obstacles and challenges. And frankly, the process must get very frustrating. What made your approach in getting this law passed so successful? How did you avoid the roadblocks that so many other states run into?
Todd: Because I got the buy-in of the people that it affected most. NamUs had to have a buy-in, and I could represent that. So I knew what NamUs could and could not do. I asked what other people wanted: TBI, medical examiners, etc: what can you do and what can you not do? So when they clearly define, “I will do this, but I cannot do that,” we worked with it and negotiated a little bit with what we wanted.
TBI originally wanted to add a fiscal note to add an analyst in their office. And I knew that fiscal note was going to hurt. So I asked maybe we could take that analyst off because that’s what my staff does, and I have a regional system administrator that specifically does what you say you need somebody to do. So, there would be no financial burden upon the state.
The state representative asked me, and this is strategic in testimony, he said, “Mr. Matthews what’s the downside of this?” and I quickly fired back, “I honestly don’t see a downside to it except that I’ll get more work come in my shop. But you can’t put the puzzle together until we can get all the pieces on the table and figure it out. We’re not going to solve these cases without all the pieces. It’s a necessary thing. My table is going to be full for a while, but that’s fine. We will have the necessary tools to put this puzzle together at that point.”
“NamUs isn’t a hot case repository; we’re more of a cold case repository.
I want to take a case into the NamUs system once law enforcement has exhausted their local effort —
but that can happen really quickly.”
JCH: To clarify, you were talking about stakeholders. So one set of stakeholders was the Medical Examiner’s Office. Another set of stakeholders was The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). Who are other stakeholders that when states look at this, they might want to consider involving in the decision-making process?
Todd: There’s like three or four different testimonies, to consider. For example, -an investigator from the police department. We brought one of the people who routinely works on missing persons and unidentified in Nashville along to see what was going on. His buy-in was very necessary. He was able to go and say, “Hey, you know, I’m behind this. This is going to be a great thing for us.”
I also found the science stakeholders. You may want to involve the family members of the missing, get the family members to encourage their representatives to take a good look at this proposal and hopefully add to it, improve it, or buy into it.
JCH: What’s the most important thing for people to keep in mind when looking to replicate what you’ve just accomplished in Tennessee?
Todd: You have to have an open mind. You have to be willing to negotiate. Some of the barriers are there for a reason.
For example, I know family members would love it if the DNA was collected day one. But that’s just not feasible. And not being a family member of the missing person, I didn’t negotiate this one. So I didn’t ask for things that I know they can’t do. We can’t take a case on the first day someone goes missing into NamUs. We could not handle it as a nation.
NamUs isn’t a hot case repository; we’re more of a cold case repository. I want to take a case into the NamUs system once law enforcement has exhausted their local effort — and that can happen really quickly. Most of the missing person’s cases resolve rather quickly and we need to give it time to do that.
So [don’t be too “set”] on wanting certain things. Be willing to negotiate. Be willing to understand other people’s side of it. Understand that there is a huge burden that you can put on the agency that could cause them to bog down. Some of the laws that I’ve seen didn’t really consider the people those laws were directing, and then you find that those things can’t be done. The law was not logical: you’d have to have more people, more staff, (or whatever) we don’t have the budget.
So I think the important thing is to get to know the process and understand and just if you don’t get exactly what you want in the bill in the first round, just remember that’s what amendments are for!