Police need to stop classifying missing Black people as 'runaways,' subjects of HBO's 'Black and Missing' say

Derrica Wilson, left, and Natalie Wilson, right, pose for a portrait outside DC General shelter on Monday February 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Derrica Wilson, left, and Natalie Wilson, right, pose for a portrait outside DC General shelter on Monday February 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.Matt McClain/ The Washington Post/Getty Images
  • Black people go missing at higher rates than others, but they often get classified as "runaways."

  • Black and Missing Foundation founders say the reporting process for missing people should change.

  • Derrica and Natalie Wilson are featured in the new HBO docuseries "Black and Missing."

In 2020, around 36% of people reported missing in the US were Black, even though Black Americans made up just 13% of the population. Despite the extent of the issue, communities of color often struggle to get their loved ones classified as "missing."

"Oftentimes our children are labeled runaways," Derrica Wilson, a former police officer featured in the HBO documentary "Black and Missing," told Insider. When missing people are classified as "runaways," she said, they don't receive the attention and resources needed to find them.

The new docuseries follows Derrica and her sister-in-law Natalie Wilson, a public relations expert, who together founded the Maryland-based non-profit the Black and Missing Foundation. The series shows the on-the-ground work they do to bring attention to cases of missing people of color and help families track down their missing loved ones.

In an interview with Insider, they said one of the major obstacles facing the families they work with is how law enforcement responds to reports of missing people from communities of color.

"We have so many cases that come through us where children are classified as runaways and it's so far from the truth," she said.

Runaways are believed to have left home on their own, so they don't trigger amber alerts or get the same attention from the media, which is worsened by the fact that missing people of color are already covered less by media outlets than missing white people.

Part of the Black and Missing Foundation's work is to help people with missing loved ones create flyers to spread awareness within the community to look for the person. But Derrica said "the general public is not likely to share a flyer of a runaway vs a missing person."

According to Derrica and Natalie, police departments should do away entirely with the term runaway. They also said part of the problem is that labeling kids as runaways could overlook that they are a victim of human trafficking or a mental health crisis.

"When it's a missing male or female in the Black and brown community, their case is often associated with some sort of criminal activity," Derrica said. "Therefore their cases are desensitized and dehumanized."

She also said the entire reporting structure surrounding missing persons needs to be changed, which is something she witnessed firsthand during her work in law enforcement.

"In most jurisdictions around the country you need to wait at least 24 hours before you can report your loved one missing," Derrica said, but added that "the first 24 hours are the most important" when a person goes missing.

She said there is a lack of training among law enforcement when it comes to missing persons cases, especially when the missing person is an adult, who is free to come and go as they please.

"There's not a lot of resources devoted to missing person units within police departments," she said.

Derrica and Natalie hope the documentary will help raise awareness about missing people of color and initiate changes with how law enforcement handles the cases.

"Invite us to have a seat at the table," Derrica said of police departments. "It's all of our responsibilities, law enforcement, the media, and the communities because we all have a role to play."

Read the original article on Insider