A new approach by the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington to use social media to raise awareness about teenagers reported missing did indeed gain attention — some of it unintentional.
Starting in January, the department changed the way it alerted the public about missing teenagers by posting their photographs, names and ages on Twitter. Previously, publicity about each case was discretionary.
That change, though, prompted a burst of attention by activists, members of the public and politicians, who interpreted the postings as a spike in the number of missing teenagers, particularly blacks and Hispanics.
“Ten children of color went missing in our nation’s capital in a period of two weeks, and, at first, garnered very little media attention,” the caucus wrote, calling it “deeply disturbing” and indicative of an assumption that those children had all run away and had not been abducted.
The police responded with statements, held a news conference this month and responded to people on Twitter. The posts on Twitter did not mean more people were going missing, said Margarita Mikhaylova, a spokeswoman.
The department reported that since the beginning of this year, 501 teenagers, who appear to be mostly black and Hispanic, had gone missing in Washington. Twenty-two of those cases and five others from 2014 and 2016 remained open on Tuesday.
Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson, who leads the department’s Youth and Family Services Division, spoke in a Facebook Live presentation on Friday about the reports of missing children. The campaign “increased public awareness,” she said. “That’s all.”
Ms. Mikhaylova said, “They leave voluntarily, they come back voluntarily or they are located.”
“Some of the circumstances that would lead an individual to leave home, that is a very complex issue,” she said. “They need to be talked about in the community with as much gravity as anything,”
She added that human trafficking was a concern nationwide, but that “we don’t have an indication that that is what is going on.”
There are no reports that any of the missing teenagers were abducted, Ms. Mikhaylova said.
The figures that the department reported in the first quarter of 2017 are on track to equal or be lower than the totals in previous years. At the end of 2016, for example, there were 2,242 missing juveniles (aged 17 and younger) reported.
Robert Lowery Jr., the vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that the department figures were “about average” and that the center was not seeing an increase in reports of missing teenagers and children nationwide.
“But one missing child is too many,” he said. “We all agree on that.”