A new contract to manage the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) was awarded on March 31, 2021 to North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International. This will allow the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to evaluate program strengths and provide direct federal oversight, ensuring its transparency to the American taxpayer. RTI’s Center for Forensic Science has an innovative and quality-focused administrative structure that will allow it to meet diverse and growing demands. NamUs will be led by a team of highly qualified scientists who have experience serving the forensic community.
[Editor’s note: for additional backstory, read our February article that explains the move away from grant-based funding, including the proposal for a new managing entity]
For more than a decade, NamUs has offered critical investigative support and free forensic services, ranging from DNA testing to fingerprint examination to forensic anthropology and odontology. Owned and managed by NIJ, NamUs has helped investigators, coroners and medical examiners solve more than 2,700 missing persons cases and identify over 2,000 decedents from their remains.
The success of NamUs, a repository of missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons information as well as a laboratory for forensic analysis, is driving more users to its unique services. The rising demand has prompted a reevaluation of the system’s operational structure, leading NIJ to end its practice of awarding grants and to begin funding the program through a multiple-year contract.
Since 2011, NIJ—part of the Justice Department’s largest grant-making component, the Office of Justice Programs—has awarded a series of grants to the University of North Texas Health Science Center to manage the NamUs database, provide support to users and test DNA samples on behalf of NIJ. These grants have served a useful purpose, helping to build the capacity of NamUs and establish its utility and effectiveness as a crime-solving tool.
But, NamUs has greatly expanded its influence and is now regarded as a premier resource for investigators. Missing persons casework submitted to NamUs has increased more than 350 percent over the last decade—from 10,000-plus cases in 2011 to more than 46,000 in June 2020, with the number of unidentified persons cases more than doubling during roughly the same time period, from fewer than 9,000 to more than 18,000 cases just last year. Ten states now require law enforcement agencies to submit missing and unidentified persons cases to the program.
RTI will partner with the University of North Texas, meaning that NamUs will continue to benefit from the expertise of a veteran staff of forensic analysts intimately familiar with the program’s mission. A system of built-in contingency plans, including at least two Combined DNA Index System upload sites dedicated to missing and unidentified persons cases, is designed to ensure that future forensic testing services can continue without interruption.
NIJ is excited about this next phase of NamUs operations. The innovations created by the new contract promises greater long-term stability to a program that is relied upon by professionals throughout the country. NamUs can now rightfully be called a fixture in the public safety landscape of America.
Lucas Zarwell is Director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences in the National Institute of Justice. He leads a team of dedicated forensic scientists who work to facilitate research and implement new technologies nationwide. Before joining NIJ, Mr. Zarwell served as Chief Toxicologist, Deputy Chief Toxicologist and Toxicologist for the District of Columbia Chief Medical Examiner (2002-2020). He obtained a Masters in Forensic Science with an emphasis in forensic toxicology from George Washington University in 1999 and maintains his certification from the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (D-ABFT-FT).
The National Institute of Justice is a component of the Office of Justice Programs in the United States Department of Justice.