Cold Case Investigation in Law Enforcement Today

Within the realm of homicide investigations standard practices dictate that efforts be made to solve cases within a 72 hour period. The reasons behind this timeline is simple, through experience law enforcement officials know that if the case is not solved within this time period it is more than likely that important leads and useful eye witness testimony will dry up and the case will become cold.

Additionally, within this timeline it is conceivable to devote the maximum resources and expertise of a law enforcement agency to one case. Cases with regards to gang involvement, immigration, destitute individuals, travellers or anonymous entities are the primary ones which remain unsolved. If there is a jurisdiction which finds itself the victim of a great number of unsolved cases or with difficulties faced in collecting evidence during this time period the case can be shelved for the time being. Cold case squads can then take over the case when the lead investigators in charge of them retire, transfer to another department or leave the case. These squads review the evidence presented before them and use it to rekindle new leads and re-interview witnesses in an effort to solve their cases (Turner and Kosa). This paper will give an overview of cold case investigations in law enforcement agencies today.

In a time period which spans from 1960 to 1995, the United States has experienced a continual rise in its murder rate. By comparison in 1960 for every 100,000 citizens there were 5.1 murders which occur, while in 1993 the homicide rate had increased to 9.5.1. While it is true that homicide rates have not been high throughout the country, some of the largest cities on the continent have experienced an unprecedented rise in murders. Washington D.C as an example experienced a record 369 homicides in 1988. It is due to this increase that the number of cases which remained unsolved began to pile up and investigators were unable to effectively solve the cases in their docket (Regini).

Factors such as the changing nature of homicides played into these difficulties, as cases increasingly exhaust resources and time. This shift was especially apparent during the 1990s when 52 of the homicides committed were attributed to strangers. There were also difficulties met in securing the trust of witnesses and ensuring their safety so they could testify. Gang violence not only hid the identity of the assailants but also took their lives before the case could be closed. Other witnesses lacked credibility due to less than legal professions. Not only did investigators find their normal approach to solving cases producing fewer dividends, they also found defense attorneys now had greater ammunition against them to poke holes in their cases (Regini).

Thus, as the homicide rate grew, the number of solved cases in Washington dwindled. In the timeline during 1965 and 1992 the clearance rate for murders fell from 91 to 65, an unprecedented 26 drop. In an attempt to address this problem law enforcement agencies and the federal bureau of investigations created their own team known as the Cold Case Homicide Squad also called the Cold Case Squad or the CCS (Regini). In terms of personnel the squads usually contain squad or one or more full time investigators in addition to other investigators who work these cases in addition to their actual duties.

Seasoned detectives in a full time or volunteer capacity are also assigned as well as partnerships which can be made with squads from the district or state attorneys office or squads relegated to the state or county. They can also form partnerships with the F.B.I, U.S Marshalls, Coroners office, retired personnel, field specialists or any other law enforcement agency. A supervisor acts as a buffer between the two squads while another supervisor who is usually a sergeant can co-ordinate the teams daily activities. Certain squads are also defined by their jurisdictional authority. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Army Criminal Investigate Division as well as the Air Office of Special Investigations are assigned cold cases which have a military component in nature. However, NCIS by design is meant to be a convert operative team (Turner and Kosa).

As mentioned before due to a lack of manpower or viable leads the original investigators on the case may be deferred in favor of a new team. This new team may be chosen by supervisors and the case chosen according to priority and the likelihood of being solved. A single cold case may be revived due to several numbers of factors such as family inquiries, new information which arises due to the involvement of family members, friends, witnesses or the public. The original investigators on particular cases may also renew them later due to their own involvement or random investigators may take an interest in these cases. Other information may be gained from informants who wish to avoid jail time in lieu of an arrangement or due to the media, politics or perhaps even at random (Walton).

Whatever the reason, not only does the reactivation of a cold case afford it a new set of eyes which can see the evidence objectively. It also provides any technical advancement such as fingerprint and DNA analysis which have come about since the passage of time on the case. Case review involves not only having the right individuals for the job it also requires a mindset which is tailored to these types of cases. Knowledge and the ability to find and act on information are paramount and support foundations of teamwork rather than individuality (Walton).

It is also taken into account that there are several factors which can affect the current status of a cold case. With the passage of time there is a greater opportunity for evidence to go missing or degrade in the process. Law enforcement agencies may have changed locations facilitating such factors. Witnesses or lead investigators may have passed or relocated at the time of the investigation. Additionally, budget and manpower may also cause evidence to be lost. All of these factors become essential when you consider that these cases may span back nearly 20 to 30 years (Walton).

The investigation of a cold case is primarily a cerebral analysis rather than an instinctual one thus requiring personnel who have an aptitude for these kinds of cases. Such cases require tedious collection of evidence and witnesses which are catered toward the case made by the prosecution. Change in relationship between perpetrators and witnesses and aspects of DNA profiling are the major factors which can play into the success of failure of cold cases. However, time is not always on the investigators side as the case may be so old the suspect may be already deceased by the time the case is solved (Walton).

Despite its difficulties cold case investigations have garnered great success in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. In Washington D.C alone in 1992 the CCS solved 157 homicides some of which included high profile murder cases. This has brought them great media attention and a positive reaction from the general public (Regini).

Although not every law enforcement agency has the manpower or resources to have their own investigative team, they can outsource to organizations such as the Vidocq society. This is a group of international investigators and other team members who work on a pro bono basis to solve unsolved homicides (Turner and Kosa). It has also resulted in the creation of other organizations such as AmberView in 2005 which was created to protect children aged 3-17 from child abductions (U. D. Justice). Another example is the Victim Assistance Professional Development Fellowship program to render assistance and compensation to crime victims who have been underserved (Justice, OVC FY 10 Victim Assistance Professional Development Fellowship Program) and the U.S departments Convicted Offender or Arrestee DNA Backlog reduction program to ascertain the guilt of offenders through DNA analysis (Justice, FY 2010 Convicted Offender andor Arrestee DNA Backlog Reduction Program) and the Post-conviction DNA Testing assistance program (Justice).

The arrest of perpetrators in these cold cases is essential not only to ensure the public safety but to also make sure that such heinous acts are not committed by the same individual ever again. The removal of suspects from a case can aid future investigations and family members who have the security of the knowledge that their loved ones homicide files have not been discarded (Turner and Kosa).

Additionally, arrests of such offenders bring a positive light to law enforcement agencies from the public and the media. Pursuing leads in such cases may not always lead to the successful objective they strive for and may have another negative effect. The success of such cases can feasibly cause current cases with low resources or leads to be encouraged to shut down in favor of cases with more feasible evidence or witnesses causing a greater workload to pile up for the CCS (Turner and Kosa). Despite this issue it is undeniable that the benefits of such a team can bring peace and security not only to the general public but also to the families of the victim.


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