Murder on Hold: Rural Cops Need Help to Solve Rising Cold-Case Backlogs

The rising number of unresolved homicides nationwide taxes the resources of most police agencies. But the hardest challenges are faced by smaller departments. Here’s one way to address that.

In an earlier column for The Crime Report, I wrote that the number of unresolved or “cold case” homicides accumulating around the country represents a major public safety challenge.

Since 1980, the national total of such cases has grown to more than 240,000—and with present clearance rates of about 61%-62%, the number of unresolved homicides nationwide is increasing by 6,000 to 7,000 each year.

I suggested that one way to tackle the cold case issue is to form “dedicated” cold case teams.

But for smaller departments, that represents a significant challenge. A research project I completed in 2016, entitled “Cold Cases: An Exploratory Study of the Status of Unresolved Homicides in the USA.” found that of those agencies which reported having cold cases but do not have a cold case team, 83% of them were departments with less than 100 sworn officers.

That should concern all of us. The evidence suggests that resolving these cold cases saves lives and reduces crime by getting criminals off the streets.

In smaller jurisdictions, the public safety challenge represented by these cold cases is no less serious. But even with the best will in the world, the kind of multi-disciplinary team I suggested is often beyond their reach—because of lack of adequate staffing, lack of funding, or both.

More tax dollars allocated to crime labs would help turn around evidence more quickly, especially considering that it can take more than 12 months in some jurisdictions to process DNA evidence. But a smart way to tackle the larger manpower and funding issues felt most keenly in smaller jurisdictions would be forming regional cold case teams with surrounding agencies.

Police have successfully used “Multi-Agency Task Forcing” for decades to combat drugs, gangs, human trafficking, and locating fugitives. Why not use the same multi-agency task forcing concept to investigate cold cases?

Here are two ways such a task force can be structured, the first using combined police agencies themselves; and the second by working through District Attorneys’ offices.

The Police Agency Model

City and county agencies can easily form their own multi-agency cold case team where the burden of manpower and even funds can be evenly distributed and not bankrupt one single agency.

One department will have to take the lead, but the contributions should be equally distributed based on size of the agencies, number of cases involved and the availability of funding.   Consideration should also be given to including the State Police in cases where broader powers and jurisdictions are involved—or even to including a federal representative such as the FBI.

A good example of such a state-sponsored regional unit can be found in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan where the team is configured with multiple agencies and run by a Michigan State Police detective. According to the team leader, 18 murders have been solved through this process between 2007 and 2016—which is a satisfactory figure for a good working unit.

The District Attorney Model

A significant number of district attorneys (DA) in this country have legal jurisdiction over several counties that include multiple police agencies. Under the leadership of the DA, each police department in his/her jurisdiction can provide a representative to the cold case team to supplement the DA’s investigative staff.

Each team member brings with them his or her department’s own cold-case homicides. Consolidating them will maximize efforts.

This concept has already had successful roll-outs in places like Orange County, FL, and Hamilton County (Chattanooga), TN. Data available so far from the Hamilton County program shows that nine cold cases have been resolved in the last few years—again an impressive result.

If such regional teams didn’t exist, the likelihood of any cold cases begin resolved would be slim to none.

Can either the regional law enforcement or DA model work in other parts of the country?

I believe it can. Dedicated teams enable jurisdictions to attack the cold-case problem at both ends of the spectrum—hot cases and cold cases—at the same time. That’s as much of a priority for smaller jurisdictions as for larger ones.

It is time to be pro-active, and to stop chasing our tails reactively by putting out fires, from one hot homicide to another.

Working them from both ends will reduce the number coming in the door, and help create a better and safer environment for all— which will in turn restore confidence in local police.

The research makes clear that in jurisdictions with populations of less than 100,000 and/or departments with less than 100 sworn officers, there is very little effort to resolve the problem.

So why not consolidate efforts?

Any effort to resolve cold, unresolved homicides is worth applauding.  But, as we know from experience and research, without a “dedicated” team, properly trained in the nuances of cold case investigations and utilizing an organized process that maximizes effectiveness, the effort is counter-productive. Time is being wasted.

James M. Adcock

A colleague of mine who works on a non-dedicated cold case team related that about 70% of the cases he works on come either through news media inquiries or from a family’s request through the police command and staff.

Research tells us that this is the least likely method to bring about a successful resolution; yet we do it all the time.

It’s time to think differently.

James M. Adcock, PhD, a retired US Army CID agent, a former Chief Deputy Coroner of Investigations in Columbia, Richland County, SC, and a former Tenured Professor at the University of New Haven, has spent the past 19 years specializing in cold case homicides by training law enforcement, researching, and reviewing cold cases for agencies around the U.S. He has written two books one on Cold Case Investigations and the other on Death Investigation, both second editions. He also lectures on cold case investigations at the Dutch Police Academy, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Why Solving Old Murders Can Help Prevent New Ones

Time is the most important resource for detectives examining the thousands of “cold cases” accumulating on police files since 1980. In the interest of public safety, mayors and police chiefs should make sure they get it, says a former deputy chief coroner.

When “hot” and “cold” cases are handled by the same detectives in a police department, both types of investigations suffer.

I wrote recently in The Crime Report that the number of cold-case homicides is rising across the country at the same time as violent crime is increasing—a parallel that is not just a coincidence.  According to data I compiled from various sources, the number of unsolved homicides since 1980 reached 230,355 by 2014—and indications are that the number has continued to rise through 2016.

That figure represents a threat to public safety, if you consider the possibility that even a small percentage of those un-caught murderers may find new victims.

Solving this crisis requires police agencies to create a “dedicated” unit that only handles issues related to their cold cases, and is not brought into a “hot” investigation when a new homicide occurs.

Why is that important? And, given the strain on many police budgets, can it be done?

The answer to the first question should be self-evident.  In newly reported homicides, the situation is evolving quickly as an investigation proceeds—especially if officers are required to address the immediate threat of a perpetrator who may present a clear and present danger.

The nuances of a cold case are different.  There’s plenty of time to carefully read and evaluate the documented evidence.  There isn’t the constant push from supervisors and mayors—not to mention the media and members of the victim’s family—to clear the case.

Moreover, many of the relationships of the actors in a cold-case investigation have changed, and that could produce more and better information.  There may also be physical evidence that hasn’t been evaluated in years.  There’s no hurry: This case isn’t going anywhere until you do something about it.

The only pressure that exists with cold-case investigations comes from either the investigator’s own personal standards, or a supervisor pushing for clearances.

Ideally, a cold-case unit should consist of at least two primary detectives, a supervisory detective, a crime analyst, a dedicated prosecutor,  and at least one person who can provide administrative support. My most recent research, presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (not yet published),  has shown that having a prosecutor assigned to the cold case unit significantly increases the chances of a proper resolution.

The problem with many newly formed cold-case units is that the two assigned detectives end up being the only members of the unit, and therefore spend excessive amounts of time doing administrative functions. If they had a little support, they could do what they do best: investigate.

What about the cost?  The fact is, a dedicated cold-case unit can help a department arrange its priorities in a more efficient way.

Many jurisdictions have no idea how many cold cases exist on their docket.  Identifying them and then organizing them according to a standard formula can help establish an efficient workflow. The most solvable ones should obviously lead the file.  One colleague has suggested putting female victims first because they present the highest return for the presence of physical evidence.

Conducting a “triage” of the files based first on the availability of physical evidence, then on those where suspects have been identified, followed by cases where much more work is needed to develop either suspects and/or evidence, is both cost-effective and time-effective.

Technology is changing rapidly.  That’s why physical evidence that has not been tested in the last three to five years should be re-tested.

Efficiency is further assured by proper supervision. Case progress needs to be reviewed regularly to ensure all viable leads are followed, and to prevent tunnel vision—such as becoming fixated on a person or theory unsupported by the evidence.

Without good supervisory oversight, mistakes are inevitable. I have seen cases where persons of interest were named in the case file as the perpetrator(s). Yet after ten years, they still had not been interviewed— not even once.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Having another set of eyes is always helpful.  Research published in 2003 by Robert Keppel[1] on serial killer cases identified many examples of cases where the perpetrator’s name was most likely already in the case file during the first 30 days of the investigation.

Just as importantly, a separate cold-case unit ensures that it will not be held to the same rapid “clearance” standard by which other detectives are measured.

Due to the volume of the information in cold cases, which inevitably necessitates more time spent in reviewing, cold-case detectives need more latitude. They should not be expected to produce quick results.

That’s important to ensure sustainability. The fact that unsolved homicides that have been lingering in the file for years means it now takes a lot more patient and painstaking detective work to finally close them; supervisors should set more flexible standards, backed up by the documentation of every actions taken to solve the case.

When should police give up on a cold case?  Ideally, never.  But realistically, once all viable leads have been exhausted, it’s time to move on.  Not all homicides are solvable.

The ability of the cold case unit to be sustainable over time will go a long way towards getting killers off the streets and helping families move on.

James Adcock

And by implication, it will make a major contribution to public safety.

James M. Adcock, PhD, a retired US Army CID agent, and a former Chief Deputy Coroner of Investigations in Columbia, Richland County, SC, has spent the past 19 years specializing in cold case homicides by training law enforcement, researching, and reviewing cold cases for agencies around the U.S.  He has written two books one on Cold Case Investigations and the other on Death Investigation, both second editions.  In February, he  presented the results of a 15-month study on the status of unresolved homicides to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He welcomes comments from readers.

[1] Keppel, Robert D. and William J. Birnes; 2003. The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations.  Academic Press. San Diego, CA.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Getting Away With Murder: The National Crisis of Cold-Case Homicides

The murder rate in 2016 was up nationally. But that’s not the worst of it. The unsolved rate of homicides is also on the rise, and that means every year, there are more people who get away with murder than the year before.

The murder rate in 2016 was up nationally. But that’s not the worst of it. The unsolved rate of homicides is also on the rise.

That means every year, there are more people who get away with murder than the year before.

Between 1980 and 2014, according to data I compiled from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the Bureau’s Supplemental Homicide Reports, we accumulated well over 230,355 unresolved homicides.  Nationwide, police agencies on average clear—where an arrest is made—about 62% of the cases, which means that over one third of those cases remain unsolved.  Sadly, for 2016, there are indications this clearance number will drop below that percentage to its lowest in our nation’s history.

This isn’t justice. It is also not good for public safety.

Those who kill will continue to commit violent crimes, perhaps even more homicides, until they are arrested and convicted.  At the same time, relatives of the victims will continue to suffer as long as those who took their loves ones from them remain unidentified and un-caught—a population that is likely to grow.

That’s why authorities must make resolving these cold cases as much of a priority as solving the “hot” ones. If we are going to successfully address this problem, we cannot do just one without the other.

The national figures for unresolved homicides are alarming, but they look even more disturbing at the local level.  To take some random examples, listed by order of magnitude:

  • Chicago—9,757
  • Detroit—7,500
  • Washington DC—3,884
  • Philadelphia—3,392
  • Phoenix—2,136
  • St Louis—1,629
  • Memphis, TN—1,480
  • Birmingham, AL—1,364
  • Nashville—1,213

And these just reflect the figures for 1980-2014. The nationwide numbers continued to grow in 2015 and 2016.

Focusing on the problem of open homicide cases means that law enforcement leaders must first identify the unresolved homicides still on their books. That seems obvious, but in fact, many police chiefs have no idea how many cases exist in their jurisdiction.

Yes, you read that correctly. How can this be the case?

First, they are concentrating their efforts more on the present than the past. Smaller agencies might justifiably claim they are constrained by budget or staffing issues, but for the larger ones cold cases just do not have the same priority as more recent homicides.

In fact, avoiding the cold cases only makes their problems worse.

Second, they also must come to understand that by resolving cold cases they will in turn take bad actors off the streets who are committing other crimes. This is accomplished by creating a dedicated cold case team trained on how to properly conduct a cold case investigation.

A dedicated cold case team is defined as a team that does nothing else but investigate unresolved homicides.  The team members should not be introduced to—or brought in— to investigate the hot cases that occur on a regular basis.

Finally, the over-reliance on technology can actually impede quick resolution of these cases.  Research suggests that good, old-fashioned detective work can solve more cases than resorting to poring over physical evidence like DNA.

Cold case detectives tell me that if there isn’t a DNA “hit” or other evidence that comes back from their crime laboratory which is positive for the identification of a perpetrator, then the case is not pursued further.

Have our officials bought into the CSI effect? This type of approach is wrong and it’s making the matter worse.  Technology is no silver bullet. If it were, we would not be suffering the huge backlog of unresolved murders that we face today.

For the sake of justice, and the surviving family members, we should demand that our police agencies properly address this problem with dedicated cold case teams that have received specialized training into the nuances of investigating decades old homicides.

If they don’t, the unresolved homicides and an untold number of surviving victims will continue to increase by the thousands each year.  It’s a national crisis that can no longer be ignored.

James M. Adcock, PhD, a retired US Army CID agent, and a former Chief Deputy Coroner, has spent the past 19 years specializing in cold case homicides by training law enforcement, researching, and reviewing cold cases for agencies around the U.S.  He has written two books one on Cold Case Investigations and the other on Death Investigation, both second editions.  Last month, he presented the results of a 15-month study on the status of unresolved homicides to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He welcomes comments from readers.

 

 

 

 

from http://thecrimereport.org

Douglas Shondel

Douglas James “DJ” Shondel II Undetermined (Suspicious Death) Douglas James Shondel II 21 YOA 100 N. 16th St. Fairfield, Iowa Jefferson County Sunday, March 11, 2001 Jefferson County in Iowa Fairfield in Jefferson County   any things don’t add up in 21-year-old Douglas James Shondel II’s mysterious March 2001 death. Crystal Knight, Shondel’s 9-months-pregnant girlfriend […]

Douglas James “DJ” Shondel II Undetermined (Suspicious Death) Douglas James Shondel II 21 YOA 100 N. 16th St. Fairfield, Iowa Jefferson County Sunday, March 11, 2001 Jefferson County in Iowa Fairfield in Jefferson County   any things don’t add up in 21-year-old Douglas James Shondel II’s mysterious March 2001 death. Crystal Knight, Shondel’s 9-months-pregnant girlfriend […]

from https://iowacoldcases.org

Douglas Shondel

Douglas James “DJ” Shondel II Undetermined (Suspicious Death) Douglas James Shondel II 21 YOA 1000 N. 16th St. Fairfield, Iowa Jefferson County Sunday, March 11, 2001  Jefferson County in Iowa Fairfield in Jefferson County   any things don’t add up in 21-year-old Douglas James Shondel II’s mysterious March 2001 death. Crystal Knight, Shondel’s 9-months-pregnant girlfriend at the […]

Douglas James “DJ” Shondel II Undetermined (Suspicious Death) Douglas James Shondel II 21 YOA 1000 N. 16th St. Fairfield, Iowa Jefferson County Sunday, March 11, 2001  Jefferson County in Iowa Fairfield in Jefferson County   any things don’t add up in 21-year-old Douglas James Shondel II’s mysterious March 2001 death. Crystal Knight, Shondel’s 9-months-pregnant girlfriend at the […]

7 Days, 14 Anniversaries

Cold case anniversaries are always tough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s unsolved homicide, a birthday he or she would have celebrated, or even the date the body may have been found. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my years writing about cold cases is that it doesn’t matter […]

Cold case anniversaries are always tough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s unsolved homicide, a birthday he or she would have celebrated, or even the date the body may have been found. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my years writing about cold cases is that it doesn’t matter […]

from https://iowacoldcases.org

7 Days, 14 Anniversaries

Cold case anniversaries are always tough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s unsolved homicide, a birthday he or she would have celebrated, or even the date the body may have been found. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my years writing about cold cases is that it doesn’t matter […]

Cold case anniversaries are always tough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s unsolved homicide, a birthday he or she would have celebrated, or even the date the body may have been found. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my years writing about cold cases is that it doesn’t matter […]

from https://iowacoldcases.org

5 Lost Birthdays

We all love celebrating birthdays, especially (these days) on Facebook. We send all sorts of good wishes, emojis of birthday cakes and big “Happy Birthday!” images, and tell our friends and loved ones we wish them another great or exciting or successful next year. When I last updated the ICC homepage, I couldn’t help but […]

We all love celebrating birthdays, especially (these days) on Facebook. We send all sorts of good wishes, emojis of birthday cakes and big “Happy Birthday!” images, and tell our friends and loved ones we wish them another great or exciting or successful next year. When I last updated the ICC homepage, I couldn’t help but […]

from https://iowacoldcases.org

5 Lost Birthdays

We all love celebrating birthdays, especially (these days) on Facebook. We send all sorts of good wishes, emojis of birthday cakes and big “Happy Birthday!” images, and tell our friends and loved ones we wish them another great or exciting or successful next year. When I last updated the ICC homepage, I couldn’t help but […]

We all love celebrating birthdays, especially (these days) on Facebook. We send all sorts of good wishes, emojis of birthday cakes and big “Happy Birthday!” images, and tell our friends and loved ones we wish them another great or exciting or successful next year. When I last updated the ICC homepage, I couldn’t help but […]

Terry Page

Des Moines County in Iowa  Burlington in Des Moines County Terry Lee Page Homicide Terry Lee Page 36 YOA 1205 Franklin Street Burlington, IA Des Moines County Investigating Agency: Burlington Police Department June 25, 2013 erry Lee Page, 36, of Burlington, Iowa, was shot and killed outside his 1205 Franklin Street residence on the edge of North […]

Des Moines County in Iowa  Burlington in Des Moines County Terry Lee Page Homicide Terry Lee Page 36 YOA 1205 Franklin Street Burlington, IA Des Moines County Investigating Agency: Burlington Police Department June 25, 2013 erry Lee Page, 36, of Burlington, Iowa, was shot and killed outside his 1205 Franklin Street residence on the edge of North […]

from https://iowacoldcases.org