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 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 […]

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

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 […]

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

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 […]

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