TAMPA, Fla. — Florida Representative Omari Hardy believes Florida could do more to find missing people.
"If there's a tool that we should be using, but for some reason we're not here in the state of Florida, then we do need to address that. Because when someone goes missing, it's like a piece of your heart is gone," Hardy said in response to our recent investigation.
Last month, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone detailed how a highly praised, federally funded database for missing and unidentified persons in the U.S. was being underutilized by law enforcement agencies.
Known as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, the system lets users post pictures of missing or unidentified people, it can track DNA submitted by medical examiners or family members of missing people and it can be accessed by anyone at any time, including the public who often hold the keys to solving cold cases.
But experts have long said the NamUs system isn't being used enough by law enforcement.
"Why it's not mandatory, that's a great question. It should be," said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a leading forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida.
For years, Kimmerle has been pushing to get NamUs on law enforcement's radar in Florida and across the country.
Kimmerle said the state and national databases that law enforcement currently have to file missing person cases are often inaccurate, out of date and can't be viewed by the public.
"It's archaic and frustrating. Things just don’t get solved. That's the bottom line. It just doesn't work," she said.
Kimmerle, along with several cold case investigators around the country, have been advocating states pass laws requiring law enforcement to use NamUs.
Nearly a dozen states, including New York and California, have bought in and currently require law enforcement to file missing person cases in NamUs.
"It’s a win-win situation. This is not a partisan issue," said Tom McAndrew with the Pennsylvania State Police where NamUs legislation is working its way through the state Legislature.
But Florida remains among the majority of states that still give police the option to report missing person cases to NamUs.
Detective George Loydgren is a cold case investigator for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. He and his team have been using NamUs for years and believes the state should pass a law mandating its use among law enforcement in Florida.
"That's millions of people who can view [NamUs] that, and do, the work for me. I'm only going to benefit from them calling up and saying, 'Hey, I saw that man or woman or I know what happened to them,'" Loydgren said.
In a series of recent tweets, Gabby Petito's father, Joseph, also weighed in on police not utilizing NamUs enough to help find the nearly 100,000 people who still remain missing or unidentified in the U.S.
In one of his tweets, Joseph Petito encouraged people to contact their state lawmakers to get a NamUs law on the books.
In Florida, Hardy believes any hope of introducing and passing a NamUs law in Florida will be a matter of political will by the Senate and House leadership.
So, why wouldn't there be political will to pass a law over a database that already exists and is federally funded?
"There are some folks in the Legislature who want to tell local governments how to do everything unless we're talking about policing agencies, unless we're talking about law enforcement agencies," Hardy said.
We contacted more than a dozen members of the Florida House and Senate who serve on criminal justice committees, along with the House and Senate leadership, to see if they would be interested in taking up the issue and carrying it through this session.
As of our deadline, we did not hear from any lawmaker willing to take up the issue this session.