In every police drama and cop show, and in several factual newspaper reports about unidentified bodies, there is made mention of being able to learn the victim’s identity through dental records. What I don’t understand about this process is how one combs through the sheer volume of said records to make such an identification, where those records are kept, etc.
Logic suggests that only people who went to the dentist and had impressions or photos taken could be identified. However, pragmatics seems to suggest that there is no central storehouse of all dental records, like a fingerprint database. Just imagine a warehouse full of plaster teeth, and the poor guy named Curtis who has to compare them all!
How do they identify using dental records? I have to guess that in most cases, they have a pretty good idea of who the victim might be. They’d probably compare against persons known to be missing.
How does that work?
I think this technique is normally only useful if you have some idea of who the deceased might be. Then you find out who that person’s dentist was, and go to him for the records.
Ocassionally, where you have no idea who the deceased is, dental inspections (not dental records) will help you narrow down the possibilities. For example, if the deceased has had dental work of a type not normally carried out in the United States, this tends to rule out everybody who has never lived outside the United States.
Expanding on what UDS said:
If the police have some clue who they’ve just found, they can go to those who knew the suspected victim and find out who the person’s dentist was. If no one knows, the police would have to start asking all the dentists in the area where the missing person lived and/or worked… and possibly where he or she used to live and work… so it’s more of a headache for the police, but it’s still not as bad as searching every dentist in the country.
If the police don’t know who the victim is, they will start by trying to find out some basic details: sex, approximate age, race… They will take those details, whatever they are, and compare them to their missing persons’ records. Say they’re pretty sure the victim was a white man, probably about twenty years old, but his wallet is missing and the body is badly decomposed. They’ll start with the dental records of any white men in their late teens through early twenties who have been reported missing in the area. If there are no matches, they’ll expand out until they’ve run through all the reasonable possibilities. If they can’t make an identification, they may contact other police districts and see if they have anyone in their missing persons’ files who might match. Tedious work, but sometimes the best way to make a positive identification, bring the victim to rest and perhaps a criminal to justice.
You left out “or had their teeth x-rayed.”