Home National news Black families beg cops to take action when loved ones go missing

Black families beg cops to take action when loved ones go missing

by PRIDE Newsdesk
Rev. Robin Hood (l) and Louvenia Hood, executive director of Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere, talk to a member of their community outside the Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago (photo by Sebastian Hidalgo).

by Trina Reynolds-Tyler, Invisible Institute  Sarah Conway, city bureau, ‘Word In Black,’ The Sacramento Observer

Some say it’s simply a mother’s intuition: a lump in the throat or a throb to the heart that warns that their child is in danger—even when police suggest otherwise.

It guided Latonya Moore when her 26-year-old daughter Shantieya Smith still wasn’t home as night fell on May 28, 2018. It was out of character for her to not reach out, especially on a school night. Moore worried officers would be dismissive if she called in, so her cousin suggested they head to a nearby 10th District police station. “I wanted them to see my face so that they could understand my concern was real,” said Moore.

It guided her even as the officer at the front desk told her not to worry, she remembers. Maybe she is with a boyfriend, the officer suggested. It wasn’t uncommon for young women like Smith to run off with a man. “Give it 48 hours before filing the report,” Moore remembers the officer saying.

But Moore didn’t want to give it 48 hours. She thought about 15-year-old Sadaria Davis, another girl who had gone missing in the neighborhood that spring, who later was found decomposed in a trash-strewn abandoned building. It was the latest in a spate of missing women and girls. In fact, the whole neighborhood was on edge.

Moore’s cousin, part of their tight-knit family group, was adamant that the officer accept the report and said they would not leave the station without one. They mentioned Smith’s bipolar disorder, which (unknown to the family at the time) meant police could have immediately characterized her case as ‘at-risk’ and started an investigation.

Finally, officers told Moore her request was accepted.

“If she shows up, give us a call,” officers told Moore. She wouldn’t hear from them for the next four days.

In Illinois, it’s against state law for any law enforcement official to refuse an in-person missing person report on any grounds, regardless of the missing person’s age, affiliation, lifestyle, or amount of time missing. Nowadays, the first 24 to 48 hours after someone goes missing are widely understood as the most vital part of a police investigation—critical to finding leads, collecting evidence and, in some cases, saving lives. The Chicago Police Department even collaborated with the network A&E on a show called The First 48: Missing Persons, showing (as research confirms) those crucial early hours can make or break a missing person case.

And yet, Moore clearly remembers an officer telling her to wait before filing a missing person report. City Bureau and the Invisible Institute spoke with multiple people who had similar experiences. In an analysis of police complaint records from 2011 to 2015, City Bureau and the Invisible Institute found 17 complaints against officers for allegedly refusing to file missing person reports. None of the officers named in these complaints were disciplined. Black women made a majority of the complaints against officers, often when attempting to report their children missing.

Additionally, at least three complaints alleged that officers at stations where they tried to file a report in-person told them to instead call 911, even though Illinois law clearly states police cannot refuse in-person reports. One father, who asked to remain anonymous, told City Bureau and the Invisible Institute that police would not allow him to report his 17-year-old daughter missing in 2020 because police told him she was an adult and could move freely in the world.

“They were saying you have to wait 48 hours before you can actually report the person missing,” said Rev. Robin Hood, who remembers hearing this from police officers starting in the 1990s. The West Side activist preacher has raised awareness and led community searches for missing Black girls and women on the West Side for decades.

In response to this accusation, police spokesperson Thomas Ahern wrote in an email statement: “The Chicago Police Department takes each missing person report seriously and investigates everyone consistently. Under state law, CPD is required to take every missing person report regardless of how long the person has been absent or who is submitting the report.”

In some cases, families believe if police had acted more urgently, their loved ones might still be alive. While it’s impossible to prove a hypothetical situation, these heartbreaking stories demonstrate how important urgent police response can be.

On July 24, 2016, Shante Bohanan called her sister and said she was being held against her will. Bohanan’s boyfriend had recently died in a shooting, and the 20-year-old had gone to her boyfriend’s family’s house in order to grieve, family members told City Bureau and the Invisible Institute. A police document stated that during the phone call, Bohanan told her sister that she had a “gun held to her head.”

Tammy Pittman holds a portrait of her daughter, Shante Bonahan. Pittman says police asked her to wait 24 hours before reporting her daughter missing in 2016, even though her daughter had called in distress (photo by Natasha Moustache).

Bohanan’s mother, Tammy Pittman, says she went to the boyfriend’s house herself the same evening, but residents of the home said Bohanan had already left. Worried for her daughter’s safety, she attempted to report her missing.

Instead, officers suggested Bohanan had run away, and urged Pittman to wait another 24 hours before reporting her daughter missing—against state law and their own policy. Police did not search the boyfriend’s home until the next evening, and they found nothing.

Three days after her mother first tried to file a missing person report, Bohanan’s naked body was found inside a black plastic garbage bag on 92nd Street in Burnside. As of 2023, Pittman says she hasn’t heard from detectives in five years.

Ultimately, whether it’s a refused report, confusion about whether or not they can file a report, or a delay in investigation, the process leaves families in limbo as leads are lost and cases go cold.

Tammy Pittman talks about her experience with police after filing a missing person report for her daughter Shante Bohanan.

“The police failed me,” Pittman said. “Even though she’s dead, she’s gone. I don’t have no answers and that’s what hurts most of all. It hurts more than anything.”

CPD media affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

(Editor’s note: In this article, anonymous sources have their names and credentials checked and double-checked by reporters and editors, though their identities are not revealed to the public. Sources may be granted anonymity if they provide unique and critical perspective or information and are at risk for personal or professional harm if their identities are revealed. This story is part of the Chicago Missing Persons project by City Bureau and Invisible Institute, two Chicago-based nonprofit journalism organizations. Read the full investigation and see resources for families at <chicagomissingpersons.com>).

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