Most dedicated detectives have commonalities: tenacious dedication to bringing justice to the victims, their families and their friends by solving crime and convicting offenders.
Homicide detectives are wired differently; we take great pride and a sense of unique fulfillment solving the most heinous of crimes: murder. We also fixate on the cases we left behind, commonly referred to as Cold Cases. I personally never liked the term Cold Case. I always preferred ‘open case’. You’ll never forget the ones you left behind and the killers that still walk among us.
One case in particular looms in my mind. It was a case that involved the death of several infants. Everything we had put together on this case pointed to a serial killer/arsonist. To date these deaths remain open. The suspect remains free.
Many department records sections or case storage areas are filled with open cases, shelved, forgotten over time.
As a task force we attempted to go as far as we could with cases until leads ran dry. The practice was to hand the case files back to the home agency to let them continue the investigation. I guarantee you most of these cases are shelved in some back office forever.
Shortly before I left the task force a small group of former supervisors met and developed an idea for a “Cold Case Unit”. We proposed to work a handful of cases causing little or no impact on our home departments. A periodic meeting, teleconference or Skype could keep us communicating. We had several cases that were never relinquished that we felt could be move forward. The idea was shot down by people behind-the-scenes for unspecified reasons.
There are many cases that could be solved but are being ignored because of decisions from individuals that have never been directly involved in major cases.
Cold Cases refer to crimes that have gone unsolved for years and that have no active leads that investigators can pursue. According to a Scripps Howard News Service there is an average of nearly 6,000 unsolved murder cases every year in the United States—despite advances in everything from online investigative techniques to forensic science.
Clearance rates for homicides vary widely, according to location. The national clearance rate has also fallen, from around 90 percent in the 1960s to well below 65 percent in recent years. In some cities it’s less than 35 percent.
To combat the problem of unsolved homicides, many of the nation’s larger police departments have implemented cold case units that are staffed with highly skilled investigators. Cold case units are now being formed among state and city police departments.
Cold Case Investigations:
Cold Case units should be staffed with a team of experienced and highly skilled investigators, whose primary mission would be to investigate unsolved homicides, missing persons cases and unidentified persons cases. Cold cases are usually labeled as such after a year, but in our case it could be as little as a week. It all comes down to leads that can be followed.
Many of the cases that still remain open often have leads that may have been dead ends at the time because of factors such as fear, intimidation, the reluctance to get involved or the unavailability of current advances in forensic science.
Cold cases should be periodically reviewed investigation to determine if new technology or new evidence exists that may help solve the case. Cold cases shouldn’t just be reopened when a relative, friend or the media place pressure on an agency. But unfortunately, this is usually the case.
Cold case investigations utilize the newest technologies and employ community-policing partnerships when working cases. Advancements in DNA technology and other forensic techniques have allowed cold case investigators to reopen cases. Detectives spend time reviewing evidence, talking to detectives who were previously assigned to the case, re-interviewing witnesses or suspects, and working closely with crime labs to retest evidence. This systematic review of cold cases by seasoned detectives increases their chances of being solved.
Training prepares detectives to maximize the successful prosecution of cold cases. By providing training in new technology and investigative techniques detectives are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully investigate and resolve cold cases.
Unfortunately all the training in world doesn’t replace experience. There is no viable excuse to continue to ignore these open cases.
“We speak for those who no longer can”