The story of Gabby Petito transfixed much of the nation earlier this year. When the young blond woman went missing on a trip with her boyfriend, cable news and social media churned out endless updates and tips, which eventually contributed to discovering her body and revealing her killer.
But for Black families, Black men, Black women, and Black children who go missing, trying to find loved ones can be a lonely and devastating journey. They frequently fight to persuade police to do anything, even to take a report. And you can forget cable news; often local media won’t take these stories seriously. And family members feel they have to lead their own investigations to have even the smallest chance of bringing their loved ones home. That issue is at the center of HBO’s recent documentary series, Black And Missing, which highlights the work of the Black and Missing Foundation. For A Word, I spoke with Derrica Wilson, the organization’s co-founder and CEO. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: Derrica, give us an idea of how many Black people go missing every year compared to the white population? What is the scope of the problem we’re looking at here?
Derrica WIlson: Nearly 14 years ago when we started the organization, 30 percent of missing persons in the United States were persons of color. And that number has since increased to 40 percent. I would also like to add that when we started the organization, there were more missing Black men than there were Black women at that time, and we’re starting to see that uptick again. Just in 2021, we’re starting to see those numbers of missing Black men elevate.
So we’re speaking in scope of more than 200,000 Black and brown people reported missing, and that’s according to the FBI statistics. But I think it’s very important to focus in on a keyword: “reported.” That is the key word because there are times when families go to report their loved ones missing and a police report is not even taken.
Wow. Or they’re discouraged from filing the report and they’re told, “Just go back home. I’m sure they’ll eventually show up.”
Yeah. “They’ll show up.” Of course. Yes. Or, “They just needed some fresh air [to] cool off.” Yes. They hear it all.
So the lack of police attention and care is a big part of the difficulty in bringing missing Black people back. Now you’re a former police officer yourself. Talk about how the police not only treat missing Black people differently, but treat the families looking for missing Black people differently than they do white folks.
It just seems that we are dehumanized, we are criminalized in all aspects. When it comes to our missing children, they’re labeled as runaways. Runaways are not receiving the Amber Alert. And, quite frankly, there’s really no sense of urgency. It’s this notion that, “Oh, this child left. So whatever happens to him or her, they brought it on themselves.” And that’s the way it’s frowned upon.
If you looked at a flyer now, one says “missing” and one says “runaway,” the messaging is not created equal. People are less likely to share a flyer that says runaway. And when it comes to missing adults –male and female– again, they are considered impoverished or some sort of criminal and it really isn’t a sense of urgency. We have families that reach out to law enforcement to have their cases taken and their loved ones to be sought after, and law enforcement will immediately put up a mugshot versus using the picture that the family has provided to law enforcement. So again, that really sends a negative message. And people, when you’re asking for community assistance in finding these missing individuals, they’re very judgmental on the back end. They’re like, “Well, that is a mugshot. That person is a criminal. So whatever happened they brought it on themselves.”
So, Gwen Ifill used to talk about “missing white woman syndrome,” which we’ve all seen. A white girl goes missing for more than 24 hours. She doesn’t come back from work or prom or her wedding or something and there’s 24-hour news coverage. And yet Black people can be missing. You’ve had Black adult scientists and professional people who can’t be found. Can you talk about some of the obstacles that you’ve faced trying to bring awareness to the stories of missing Black people?
We all know the names Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Caylee Anthony, Elizabeth Smart, Gabby Petito, but can you name one, just one, missing persons of color, male, female, child, that has elevated mainstream media? It doesn’t exist. And so with the decision makers in the newsroom, they typically don’t look like us so they don’t think our stories are sensational enough and they don’t want to cover it. When it comes to law for enforcement, again, they’re not taking the cases seriously. I think about Daniel Robinson, who’s missing out of Arizona, the Black geologist, and his father who served our country on the front lines. But yet he can’t even get the assistance that we paid for from our tax dollars. He can’t get those resources to help him find his son. It’s something broken in the system. We all have a responsibility to correct these issues with law enforcement. We have to correct the issues with the media. And then the community also plays a vital role as well.
So the film does a deep dive into why police often dismiss missing Black children as runaways, even when the evidence points in another direction. In the documentary, John Walsh, the founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, “I have dealt with so many cases that nobody looked for them because a cop decided that kid was a runaway. And that kid wasn’t a runaway. That kid was a kidnapped kid. Cops are going, ‘Yeah, another Black kid. They’re missing all the time.’ And nobody calls you out at the end when they find their body. Who has the right to sign the death warrant of a kid by saying, ‘Runaway. Forget about it.’” Talk a little bit about that attitude and how you saw it play out when you were on the force and in the work you do now.
John Walsh, he was absolutely accurate. I mean, this is the view of our community when our children are going missing. “Oh, just another Black kid.” And that’s how they look at it. Working as a police officer, I saw things firsthand. I remember, and as you probably saw in the film, I talked about a young lady that was missing from the neighboring jurisdiction. She had been missing for days and she was stuck in a hotel. She was a victim of domestic violence. But she was stuck at a hotel in the city of Falls Church for days. And I never saw her flyer come across my desk. I didn’t know that she was missing until after I had rescued her.