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‘Missing Persons’ shows what Chicago cops are up against

Chicago police Detective AyannCorb(center) is featured “The First 48: Missing Persons.”

Chicago police Detective Ayanna Corbin (center) is featured on “The First 48: Missing Persons.”

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Updated: May 31, 2011 8:41PM

Statistics are much scarier when they’re about your hometown. In A&E’s new spinoff series “The First 48: Missing Persons,” we learn that every 30 minutes, someone in Chicago disappears.

TV long has taught us that people aren’t considered “missing” for 48 hours. But Chicago’s police department is one of the few to respond immediately to every report — not just missing children.

“If it just helps one person to start looking right away, then you deal with the other people that are already back by the time you get the paperwork,” says Ayanna Corbin, one of the detectives to appear on the show (premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday). “We look for them immediately, and very intensely.”

The premise of the new series (and the original “First 48”) is that if the detectives can’t find the missing person in the first two days, the chances of finding him or her alive are cut in half. It’s particularly urgent in Chicago, where the extreme weather quickly can turn deadly for children or the elderly.

Until now, the Chicago Police Department hasn’t made a habit of letting camera crews ride along with officers. “Police work is not entertainment,” explained the CPD’s deputy director of news affairs, Patrick Camden, in 2005. “What they do trivializes policing. We’ve never seriously even considered taping.”

But “Missing Persons” is a different beast, say those involved. As such, it’s the first show to be granted unrestricted access to ongoing investigations.

“I know the producer, Gary Sherman, has been working on this project for a long time,” says Pam Childs, a detective in the second episode. “It took a lot of work to convince the police department to let him do this. I think it’s a great thing, to shed some light on the Chicago Police Department.”

Another detective on the show, Ayanna Corbin, appreciates the opportunity to “let people know what we do. Especially when it comes to serving — it’s not a criminal investigation in most cases. This is a service.”

In this week’s premiere, police pursue an Almighty Saints gang member suspected of murder, a despondent woman about to jump from a bridge and an Illinois Institute of Technology sophomore last seen heading to Lake Michigan. “Not a great idea to hang out at the lakefront, drunk, at night,” notes one investigator.

Childs, who has been with the department for 20 years, was inspired to become a police officer by Pam Grier’s action movies in the ’70s. I thought she was a really cool detective,” she says.

Childs is decidedly more empathetic, though. Even though she sees a lot of unhappy endings, she’s filmed promising a distraught mother that she’ll find her 14-year-old daughter.

There’s a time to detach emotionally, though.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m not burnt out,” says Childs. “I have kind of a balancing system.” To shake off the day, she will walk barefoot in the grass, indulge in a candlelit bath, or write down some feelings. “You’ve got to get your mind off it, so you don’t pile on layers and layers and one day you find yourself a basket case.”

Like its fictionalized cousins, much of the show’s success depends on intriguing characters that keep you coming back. Detective Selles Morris, for instance, got out of the military and “bounced like a hippie from engineering to philosophy,” he says. He approaches cases analytically, like a calculus problem, and prefers to work alone. Mike Cochran is an ex-Marine with a killer smile, laying on the charm and leaning on the “good cop” approach.

Even cops watch shows like “CSI” and “Without a Trace,” says Childs. “A lot of that stuff is real stuff,” she says. “It gives you a vast amount of ideas that can help you along, especially when you come to a stumbling block. You think, ‘What is the next thing I can do to find the person?’ ”

Corbin admits that she could watch a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” marathon all day. “When you work the whole police angle every day, I like the dramas that end up nice and neatly at the end of the day,” she says.

There are differences, though, between real people and characters like Benson and Stabler. “They don’t turn it off!” she says. “They stay at work all day long, and are always so extra intense and angry.”

Corbin, who’s been with the department for 10 years, knew what she was in for — her dad was a 25-year Chicago Police vet. She accepts the deaths she comes across, but focuses on the positive. “I like finding people, reuniting people with their families, unraveling the mystery,” she says. “What happened to this person? Where are they?”

It’s the only way to survive the job, she says: “You know what? I’m a happy person.”

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