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Self-Administered Interviews for use in Missing Person Investigations

A missing person is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established … and their well-being or otherwise confirmed”. Last year, someone was reported missing every 90 seconds in the UK, and the financial and emotional costs surrounding missing people are huge.

Working with UK police forces, the Missing Person Unit at the National Crime Agency, and charities such as Missing People and Locate International, we have developed three versions of a Self-Administered Interview for use in missing person investigations; (i) SAI-Missing, (ii) SAI-Unsolved Missing, and (iii) SAI-Return Home. Each version combines core features drawn from the original SAI yet addresses a different investigative need.

SAI Missing Persons Versions


SAI-Unsolved Missing

SAI-Return Home

SAI for Missing Person Investigations (SAI-Missing)

The success of missing person investigations often centres on the quality of information obtained in the early stages. Reliable information can not only inform the search but might also become vital evidence if the case broadens into a criminal investigation relating to a sexual offence, abduction, or even murder.

However, due to the large number of people reported missing on a daily basis, a full investigation by the police is not always possible, especially if a case has been categorised as low risk. In addition to managing the investigation, the police must also manage the worries of those who have reported the missing person. People’s experiences during the early days of discovering that someone close to them has gone missing include shock, distress, and a feeling of helplessness. The SAI-Missing was therefore designed as a tool that requires low resources to obtain reliable information that can meaningfully inform a missing person investigation, as well as providing a means for family and friends to be actively involved. It enables the police to respond to a report of a missing person immediately and efficiently.

The SAI-Missing investigative tool is a standardised protocol of clear instructions and questions that enable individuals who have reported a missing person to provide their own report of information that might help the investigation. This can be completed in their own time and does not require a police officer to be present. The tool incorporates current best practice relating to missing persons investigations alongside retrieval techniques used in the original SAI. Feedback and advice from Focus Group discussions with Missing Person Units from UK police forces and the National Crime Agency helped refine the tool and make it fit for purpose.

The SAI-Missing tool comprises three sections, each reflecting key areas of investigation outlined in best practice guidelines in the UK. These sections focus on eliciting (1) a detailed and accurate physical description of the missing person, including (if relevant) a description of what they were wearing and any personal effects they had with them; (2) circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the missing person, including who they were with, and their intentions (if known); and (3) information about the missing person’s normal routine, moods, and behaviours, alongside instructions to consider and report any recent changes to these. The SAI-Missing tool also provides respondents with a list of tasks that could enable them to further help (find a clear and recent photo, list relevant contacts, passwords, significant items missing, etc.).

Empirical testing of the SAI-Missing tool found an average increase of 35% for missing person descriptions reported in comparison to a control condition where the same questions were asked but no retrieval support was provided (Gabbert et al., 2020). Specifically, the SAI-Missing tool elicited significantly more information regarding physical descriptions and descriptions of clothing and personal effects, than the comparison control form. The information provided was detailed and accurate.

Reference: Gabbert, F., Tamonyte, D., Apps, J., Caso, A., Woolnough, P., Hope, L. Handscomb, M., & Waterworth, G. (2020). Examining the Efficacy of a Self-Administered Report Form in Missing Person Investigations. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 25, 1-16.

Use of the SAI-Missing tool showed an increase of 35% for missing person descriptions reported in comparison to a control condition

SAI for Long Term Missing Person Investigations (SAI-Unsolved Missing)

Long term missing person cases remain some of the hardest to resolve. Many have become ‘cold-cases’ due to a lack of investigative leads.

As more time passes it becomes harder to uncover new information relating to the whereabouts of the missing person. Families and partners describe a conflict between hope and hopelessness – experiencing the loss of someone who is not wholly absent, and suffering grief without closure.

Police are under an enormous pressure both internally (within their respective departments) and externally (from families of victims and media pressures). However, the police have limited capacity to ensure all unsolved cases are reviewed effectively, and limited resources to keep the search active.

The SAI for Long Term Missing Person Investigations (SAI-Unsolved Missing) offers a new and innovative tool to support the ongoing investigation. It comprises sections to elicit different types of information about the person who is missing, for example, circumstances surrounding the disappearance, and the social network of the missing person. Where relevant, retrieval support is provided to help the person completing the form think back to the time when the individual went missing. In many missing person cases, there is at least one person who knows what has happened or where the missing person is.

The goal of the SAI-Unsolved Missing is therefore to uncover new investigative leads by encouraging people to report information that might have gone unreported or been missed in the initial police investigation, including details about the network of family, friends, and associates of the missing person at the time that they went missing.

Locate’s website –

Self-Administered Return Home Interview (SAI-Return Home)

When individuals go missing, but then return or are found, they are given a ‘Return Home Interview’ (RHI). These interviews provide an opportunity for individuals to discuss their reasons for going missing, which can sometimes help enable appropriate action to be taken to support the individual and reduce the risks of future episodes of missing or running away.

These interviews provide an opportunity for individuals to discuss their reasons for going missing, which can sometimes help enable appropriate action to be taken to support the individual and reduce the risks of future episodes of missing or running away.

Factors that have been reported that affect the quality of RHI include a lack of training and awareness regarding RHI and adults’ safeguarding in general, as well as a dismissal of the potential value of the RHI among police officers and others conducting the interviews. An increase in police workload has also been identified as a contributary factor to poor quality RHI, and the use of remote interviews has been discussed as a potential solution.

The SAI-Return Home tool can be used to achieve the recommended objectives of the RHI; such as determining causes, experiences, and feelings of going missing, identifying possible risks of harm, and referring to relevant support services. It enables individuals to provide this information about their missing episode sensitively, in their own time, and in their chosen location. Information reported in the SAI-Return Home form can be used to identify needs, and thus help to prevent further missing episodes. This investigative tool also has potential to reduce the workload in a Missing Person Unit, thereby freeing up resources that could be allocated to other tasks, such as safeguarding.

Key Developments

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SAI used in Aviation Incidents

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College of Policing endorse the SAI

In 2019, the College of Policing released new Authorised Professional Practice (APP) guidelines for frontline police officers on obtaining initial accounts from eyewitnesses, that includes a strategic recommendation that "Interview advisers should consider use of the Self-Administered Interview in single incidents involving high numbers of witnesses”.