Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Thailand has had a centralized police force for more than a century, accumulating a broad range of responsibilities – from petty theft and manual control of traffic lights to drug suppression and murder investigations. Established in 1905, the Royal Thai Police is a national body of 220,000 police officers who answer directly to the prime minister. Police priorities are often influenced by national politics and are guided by a centralized reward system of promotions and demotions, also approved by the prime minister. In short, Thai police officers are directly accountable to the national government, not local communities.
In light of the overwhelming responsibilities and the centralized chain of command, many police officers view missing persons as a low priority and a distraction from existing assignments. If someone wants to report a missing person, Thai police officers will enforce an unofficial waiting period and require that missing persons be reported only if they disappear for more than 24 hours – even though the first 24 hours are most crucial for the safe return of missing persons, especially children and Alzheimer’s patients. This practice is widely known among police officers as “fanning away cases” – police officers avoid associating themselves with cases that are not national priorities and will not advance their career.
Perceived as a low priority crime, most missing person cases lack proper investigations. Most records of missing persons are not filed, but left in the daily book of records alongside reports of missing wallets. For the few records that are filed, police officers rarely visit the homes or last seen places of missing persons. Instead, police officers will fax a photo of the missing person to a few nearby precincts. The blurry faxed image is often the end for many missing person cases, in addition to a one-time government aid package of 2,000 baht (66 US dollars) to console families of missing persons who cannot be found. One way to pressure the police into prioritizing missing person investigations is through national media coverage, but poor families with no social connections have little chance of getting media attention and finding their loved ones.
The problem of missing persons highlights many weaknesses in the Thai police force, such as the lack of coordination and institutional memory. Because of the centralized chain of command, local police officers respond only to their own superiors and avoid interfering with the work of other jurisdictions. As a result, many families of missing persons find themselves in limbo – a person disappears from town A but called for help from a phone in town B, and both police precincts say it is the other one’s responsibility. The search for missing persons also reveals a lack of information coordination. Until August 2012, the Royal Thai Police did not have a unified database of arrest warrants, and today arrest warrants are still kept at local stations in paper form and not entered into the national database. Often, police officers in different jurisdictions are not aware that the same crime reflects similar criminal behavior, or that the suspect has already been issued an arrest warrant in a different precinct.
The lack of institutional memory extends to the lack of collective understanding in the crime itself. For criminal offenses that are not assigned as national priority, the lack of cumulative statistics and extraction of lessons learned causes misconceptions to be sustained by the police force as well as the public. For instance, many police officials tell the media that most missing children are victims of a mythical “van gang” that kidnaps children, chop off their limbs and puts them to work as beggars. However, most child kidnappings in Thailand are done by individuals – often friends of the child’s family – for the purpose of sexual abuse or forced labor. Misconceptions about the nature of the crime can lead to misguided efforts, such as a search for the headquarters of a criminal organization when many missing children are being confined in residential neighborhoods.
Organized crime such as human trafficking and sex trafficking can often be traced back to individual kidnappings or voluntary disappearances caused by deception. Some missing person cases reflect serial criminal behavior. Contrary to common perception, the problem of missing persons is not a private affair affecting individual families but a threat to overall public safety.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Finding that Thailand has no functioning system to recover missing persons, Eaklak believes that the best approach to pool limited resources is to create widespread public participation. He is developing a national network of online volunteers who contribute to the search for missing persons through diverse forms of financial and in-kind assistance – from donating advertisement spaces in local newspapers to providing immediate transportation to retrieve missing persons in specific neighborhoods. He is creating public support networks customized to diverse kinds of missing persons, including abducted children, labor trafficking victims, and elderly people with Alzheimer’s. Eaklak is using this crowdsourcing model to also alter the understanding of view of law enforcement agencies that the problem of missing persons is not a private family matter but a pressing public concern. He has set up the first national database of missing persons for the Royal Thai Police and has initiated training programs for police officials on recovering missing persons, emphasizing the role of affected families and local communities in contributing information and social capital. Eaklak is redefining the dynamic of missing person searches, from passive reliance on government assistance to active leadership by affected families and society at-large.