Though the organization is less than a year old, Missing People is fast becoming one of Sweden’s most efficient forces for locating people who have been reported missing.
Last week, the organization located three missing people in three separate cases within the span a few days, including the high-profile case of Anna, a nine-year-old girl who failed to turn up at school near Gothenburg last Thursday.
Jerri Kangasniemi, the organization’s treasurer, explains the group’s recent success has nothing to do with luck.
“We are not 600 Muppets that are out on a walk; we know what we’re doing,” Kangasniemi tells The Local.
Missing People began to take shape in April 2011, with efforts to find Tony Mattson, a 24-year-old man from Gothenburg who had been missing for several weeks.
“One of our directors was his stepmother. Sadly, he was later found drowned in a canal,” Kangasniemi explains.
But the effort proved to be a turning point for the people involved in the search, and several months later, Missing People was born.
According to the group, 7,000 people are reported missing in Sweden annually, and Missing People’s aim is to help find them.
The group now boasts 6,000 registered members across the country, as well as a Facebook page with more than 130,000 members, helping to quickly spread the word about people who have been reported missing as well as searches organized to find them.
“Our first real case we had about 200 people, and considering the new social media, that is actually not a lot,” Kangasniemi continues.
“Now our members get a text message when a search party is organized. Everything we write today reaches up to 360,000 people.”
The group receives about a dozen reports a week. So far this year they have found seven people, including the three people found last week.
Before taking up a case, however, the group requires that the police have also been informed. The person can be anyone missing in Sweden, as well as a Swedish citizen reported missing abroad.
According to Kangasniemi, the group assesses each case individually when deciding how to proceed.
“When we get a report we look at the facts behind the disappearance. Based on those facts we make a judgement call on whether we will go to the public and conduct a search party,” he explains.
“In some cases we decide not to do anything.”
While posting pictures online and organizing search parties are Missing People’s most common tools, it has also employed divers and sniffer dogs in some cases.
In the case of Anna, Missing People was able to help rally about 800 people into a search party within hours, according to Kangasniemi.
Anna was found unharmed early the following morning, with a 24-year-old man discovered nearby.
While he at first claimed to be part of the search party, Missing People volunteers became suspicious and prevented him from leaving the scene.
He was subsequently arrested, admitting later to police that he had abducted the girl.
Despite the large number of people engaged in the search for Anna, Kangasniemi explains that Missing People has methods to ensure that people are divided up in such a way to ensure searches proceed in an organized and effective manner.
There are also safeguards to prevent people like the 24-year-old suspect from infiltrating a search party to glean information about its progress.
“We don’t release that kind of information to anybody, because of the risk of a potential suspect trying to get information,” Kangasniemi explains.
“We would be kind of brain dead if we released that information to everybody.”
And Kangasniemi rejects criticism that Missing People volunteers might be inclined to engage in vigilante justice.
“Our only service is finding who is missing. Our priority is finding the missing person for the missing person’s family,” he says.
“We inform everyone before the search that if they find anything, do not touch it. If you find the missing person, alive or dead, you always take two steps back and then call the police. We are not interested in becoming private investigators.”
Inspector Lars Byström, spokesman for the Stockholm police, tells The Local that the police appreciate Missing People’s approach.
“Of course if the person is still alive they should call for help. Yet if the person is dead they should definitely take some steps back and call for the police,” Byström says.
He adds that, so far, the police appreciate the efforts of Missing People, explaining they have been a real asset in investigating reports of people who have gone missing.
In two weeks, Missing People’s board is scheduled to meet with Sweden’s National Police Board (Rikspolisstyrelsen) to discuss future plans.
“We need them. Sometimes we have a lot of other things going on. We always appreciate it when civilians want to help us or other people that are in a difficult situation,” he continues.
“We hope to have a good cooperation with them and hopefully we can teach them what to do and what not to do.”
Kangasniemi agrees that Missing People has a good relationship with police in Sweden, explaining that “in general the police are extremely positive toward us”.
“That may be not so hard to understand considering we actually do find people,” he adds.
Sanne Schim van der Loeff