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Without a Trace 

City leaders drop the ball for missing people

If you disappeared, just dropped off the face of the earth, would anybody care?

Derrick Morris, 19, did just that on November 21. He was last seen at his Charlotte home on Ringed Teal Road and hasn't been heard from since. His family is very worried. So they reported him missing to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

The police did what they often do in these cases and sent out a press release. Usually the TV news stations pick up these releases, briefly flashing the missing person's picture and name across the screen.

Then these cases are largely forgotten by the public and often filed away by the police, who make inquiries but deal with thousands of these cases each year.

If, at some point in the future, you were abducted and dragged away, you would probably assume that someone would be looking for you and that someone would make the situation a priority. If you've lived here for a few years, you've paid thousands of dollars in taxes to the city and probably expect the police to make a full-scale effort to find you before the maniac who locked you in his basement dispatches you.

But that's not what would happen. That is, unless you had a public-relations-savvy family and dozens of friends who could search for you and get your case hundreds of thousands of hits on popular Web sites.

In other words, getting the authorities to give a damn would rapidly degenerate into a high-tech, macabre popularity contest in which those who care about you force the police and the public to notice and care that you are gone.

Kyle Fleischmann, 24, disappeared after walking out of an Uptown bar after midnight on Nov. 9. Most of the free world knows this for one simple reason -- those who love him ran a first-rate media campaign.

Contrary to public perception, being good-looking and gone may generate a news story or two about your disappearance, but not weeks of around-the-clock news coverage. For that, the media needs "hooks" to keep the story going, and Fleischmann's family and friends provided them in the form of press releases with new activities to cover. There were searches that grew in size, search dogs that were unleashed and a massive Internet outreach effort. All these were covered as individual stories that kept the Fleischmann case alive.

Meanwhile, cases like Morris' die a quick death because there is nothing to cover.

Kyle's mom, Barbara Fleischmann, says it wasn't until the local and the national news coverage of the case became large-scale that local authorities began helping the family in a substantial way.

In the beginning, almost all of the releases to the media in the Fleischmann case came from his family and friends. It wasn't until a week after Fleischmann's disappearance, when his story began appearing on America's Most Wanted and CNN and 40,000 people joined his Facebook page, that the press releases started coming from the police and fire departments. Was the departments' leadership embarrassed by what might appear to be a lack of involvement on their part? It sure looked that way.

A Nov. 15 press release from the police department, the first substantial release from them in the Fleischmann case, was more about the police than about Fleischmann.

The city has never hosted a Bobcats game or arena event it can't staff with dozens of police officers to handle parking at no cost to those profiting from the events -- and more than one million dollars a year in costs to taxpayers. But the police department played oh-so-broke in the Fleischmann case, pointing out that it had only five detectives in its missing persons unit to deal with more than 3,500 missing person reports annually.

Ten days after Fleischmann's disappearance, on Nov. 19, police surprised Fleischmann's roommates with a search of their apartment and questioned them for hours -- even though they'd already been questioned before. Officers also hauled off bags of stuff. (Who keeps the bloody sheets, if there were any, for 10 days after a crime?) The department capped that off with a press release to let the media know about its belated efforts.

I've been getting the police department's press releases for years, and it was the most attention I've ever seen them give to a missing person's case. An actual search of an apartment with press releases to follow? Unprecedented. But then, so was the CNN coverage.

By November 17, press releases announcing the Fleischmann family press conferences were coming from the fire department, rather than from the family.

None of this is really a commentary on our police officers and firemen, but on the priorities of those who lead this city. The chilling lesson here is that while you must always be there for the government with your tax bill paid on time, you can't assume that the government will be there for you -- or that the basic services you pay for will actually be provided. You've got to be prepared to go it alone.

If a family like Fleischmann's finds itself in a situation too horrible to comprehend, even in our modern, have-it-all world, they may be utterly alone.

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