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Dispatch: 'Working homicides is a very stressful job... I needed a break from death'

September 8, 2009 | 12:26 pm

A flier distributed by the L.A. County sheriff's missing person unitSeveral weeks ago, the Homicide Report provided an account of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, which is based in Commerce.

In a small corner of the bureau is the Missing Persons Unit. The four-person team, made up of a sergeant, two investigators and secretary, receives 150 to 200 reports of missing persons each month. More than 95% of the 2,200 or so cases it handles each year are resolved, according to sheriff’s statistics from 2008.

Detective Diane Harris has been with the unit since 2002. She began her career with the department in 1977 as a jail deputy. After working patrol at the Temple Station and as a detective investigating crimes in progress, Harris joined the Homicide Bureau in 1997. She left that unit after five years.

“Working homicides is a very stressful job. I needed a break. I needed a break from death. Dealing with the families, the emotions ... sometimes you can’t solve the crimes and it gets too hard,” she said. “The longer you stay there, the longer the cases pile up behind you.”

Harris joked about switching to Missing Persons: "I actually get to deal with live people."

But, she said, there are a lot of misconceptions about filing a missing-person claim, namely that an individual has to be away a certain amount of time before a report can be made.

“In the state of California, there is no required time to file a report,” she said. Additionally, a person does not have to be a blood relative to make a claim. One can file a missing-person report anytime, anywhere, although it remains best to file with the station where the missing person resides or was last seen.

It can take one to two days for the report to be processed at the station before it’s received by the Missing Persons Unit at the bureau. Important cases are sent immediately. Circumstances that elevate a case to that level include when a person requires medication that may save his or her life or suffers from a diminished mental capacity and needs supervision, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Missing children cases are handled by station detectives and referred to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The unit based in Commerce investigates only cases involving people 18 and older.

Harris said missing-person cases typically fall into five categories: an elderly person with diminished mental capacity leaving their residence, people with psychiatric issues who flee their care homes, parents searching for their adult children, husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend unexpectedly leaving their partner and parents abducting juvenile children without alerting their spouse.

“When I have to look for an older person, the first thing I ask is: Are they in a car?” Harris said. Many times, she said, family members will allow an elderly relative to drive a vehicle, even if they are not fit, because they do not want to impose on their elder's freedom. Usually the disoriented driver returns to a previous home or a former neighborhood.

In those cases, investigators visit the locale, hand out fliers in the area and the nearest station, as well as check hospitals. Many times, the elderly will run out of gas, or end up sitting at a place for many hours.

“A Good Samaritan usually asks the person if they’re OK, calls the police or takes them to the hospital,” Harris said. At that point, the authorities are alerted and the person is reunited with their family.

Those with psychiatric issues generally wander out of their unlocked care facility.

“They don’t qualify as critical cases because most times they are street people to begin with. When they hit the streets they just decompress,” Harris said. "Usually they get picked up by another facility, the staff realizes who they are, and try to take them back to where they were in the first place. The original facility will usually not allow them to return because they have been gone too long and have not taken their medication.” The person is then admitted to another home.

Cases in which parents are searching for an adult child pose their own problems, she said. “We call their friends and ask where they’re at. I call it ’shaking the tree.’ We locate the person, but if they don’t want to go back they have that right,” she said.

Investigators notify the parents that their son or daughter has been safely found, but will not provide their location.

“It’s not a criminal case. It’s not against the law to be a missing person. We don’t have the authority to make people go back home. We just need to make sure they’re where they’re at willingly,” Harris said, sighing. "Often times, there are family dynamics that we end up having to deal with."

As is the case when one member of a couple leaves without telling their partner or when an “offending parent” makes off with their children. This in turn becomes familial child abduction. Once the kids are found, the case is handed over to the courts to handle custody.

Few cases end in death. Last year, only one missing person was a homicide.

“Most missing person deaths are suicide-related,” Harris said. The person will leave a note, or the family will notice reccurring issues and notify authorities. Those cases are considered crucial and handled immediately. Other deaths are simply accidents.

“Last year, I had two people die from an avalanche, one from hiking,” she said.

Unsolved cases remain active until the person is found. The Missing Persons Unit has open cases that go back to the 1950s.

-- Sarah Ardalani in Commerce

Follow the Homicide Report on Twitter @latimeshomicide.

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