Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Real Challenges for Cold Case Investigators

by Tom Adair
Investigating cold cases is, in some ways, like searching out your family genealogy. New technologies have helped us mine data from public records but the data has to exist in the first place right? I have worked on many cold cases; some old, some not so old. They can be very challenging. Some might think that the greatest challenge is the passage of time. While that can be a major obstacle affecting things like memory, there are other issues that can be far more damaging. Cold cases can languish in archives for decades (even longer). They may be passed among dozens of detectives over the years and reside in multiple buildings and locations (as agencies relocate or reallocate space). They may transition from a state of acute institutional knowledge to one of complete unawareness. Like family lore that dies with the passing of a generation.

These issues can lead to massive frustration for the investigator. As authors we should consider how these challenges may influence our storyline and character evolution. Even the most advanced forensic analyses  may fail to provide meaningful answers. It's hard to comprehend future environments. Laws can change, rules can change, people can change. Knowing what critical issues will arise decades from now is an impossible task for criminal investigators. There are some cardinal principles, of course, but rarely does a case boil down to those broad points. The devil is in the details as they say and details have a stubborn habit of getting lost in time. Here are some of the most frustrating.
  1. Illegible Reports: Old police reports were largely hand written. Some officers have very poor (illegible) handwriting. If you can't read the report, or the language is unclear, then it may as well not exist. Sometimes you luck out and the deputy is still alive, or perhaps a child can read it but other times you can't. The chicken scratches just taunt you. Do they hold the missing key or are they just redundant case data?It's not just reports either. Notes, crime scene measurements, even the reporting officer's name may be illegible! How do you get a writing standard from someone you can't even identify?
  2. Outdated Storage Devices: This is a big one. Since the 1950's police agencies have been utilizing various technologies to store data. In the early days it was microfiche. Today we have terabyte imaging drives. In between these two technologies are a vast number of devices. Some had mass market appeal and others were a flash in the pan. How does a modern agency "read" a 5 1/4" floppy disk? Even if you could find the hardware do you have the software needed to open the file? Imagine a crime scene sketch and measurements done with a program written by some detective's neighbor's kid. How do you open it now? How about old cassette drives or processing 110 formatted photographic film?  Let's say you could find the correct device. Do you have the cables and connections necessary to link it to modern equipment?
  3. Evidence Handling: This is huge. DNA didn't exist thirty years ago. Fingerprints weren't recoverable from surfaces that today we can process. I have seen numerous old crime scene and autopsy photos of individuals handling evidence bare handed. I know that sounds terrible but it was just how things were done back in the day. Prosecutors, detectives, officers, doctors, even the media sometimes handled items without gloves. Knowing that, how valuable will any DNA or fingerprint evidence be? Can you even get standards from the old employees and how do you know who even touched the items? This situation also raises concerns about the chain of custody for these items when they are eventually submitted at trial. 
  4. Incomplete reports: I hate these. As writers we love to depict the detective taking the case file home and spreading it out all over their coffee table or kitchen counter. Today, we don't do that stuff but forty years ago was a different story. Most of the time the missing data is obvious. You may open a suspicious death inquiry with no autopsy photos. They had to take them but they aren't there! It may be that the Coroner was the custodian and when they left they took their "records" with them. Sometimes old documents are just purged to make space. It sounds crazy but it happens. You may have crime scene photos that were taken but filed under an incorrect case number (maybe the photographer is dyslexic). You can use your imagination because virtually anything that could happen, has happened somewhere. 
  5. No trail: Cold cases are called cold for a reason. Time has a way of hiding the trail as they say. Today we can track and identify people much more easily than we could forty years ago. People today leave an enormous data footprint. Back then, everyone in town may have know "Old Man Hitchens" but today it's not much to go on. Phone numbers don't exist and police may have never jotted down things like a date of birth or social security number. A detective on the case may have been able to look at a photo and tell you exactly who was in it. No need to write that information down right? Thirty years later however there may be no one left who is familiar with the case or is able to identify who certain witnesses are. Then there's the issue of identity theft. You can run commercial database searches for "Tom Adair" in Colorado and come up with a dozen different records, many of which are not me. That's a lot of leg work to track all those people down and figure out who is who. 
I wish I could tell you that cold case investigations are hampered only by faulty memories but the truth of the matter is that administrative "systems" and decisions made decades ago can have devastating effects to a case file. Today, many police agencies see the benefit of doing a yearly audit of cold case files. They can identify what "gaps" may exist in the information and try to get them filled. Likewise, investigators working active unsolved cases realize how important it is to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's".  If you are writing about a cold homicide case you should try to incorporate some of these obstacles into your storyline. The average reader may not identify with the frustrations but and cop that reads it will give you a thumb's up.


  1. Bringing old police files into the digital world is a huge undertaking. Here in Eugene, they're working to scan all old paper reports into digital files so they are readily accessible to everyone. It's taking years, but they're getting it done.

    This is a timely and informative post for me, because my next series will likely focus on some cold cases.

  2. I just want to say thanks for sharing your expertise!

  3. Thanks Kris and L.J. I can't even comment on some of the projected concerns for future investigations (don't want to give the bad guys any new ideas) but the world is definitely changing and law enforcement has it's work cut out for them. Sadly, some cases with missing information tend to fall through the cracks and gather dust because the gaps are just too large to overcome. As an investigator you dream about going back in time and making things right but there is sometimes little that can be salvaged. Hopefully as agencies develop more cold case squads and perform audits these data gaps will shrink in size.

  4. This is wild, Tom. I never imagined all of the frustrating bits… especially outdated storage devices.

    I joined some Lakewood detectives in a cold case search using a Human Remains Detection dog. It had only been considered cold for a few months. My understanding is that they brought back a retired detective to work some cold cases. One of the other detectives who joined us did so for personal reasons… it had been her first case and it bugged her that it wasn't solved.

  5. Thanks Tom, for this fascinating post. Our justice system needs your talent as a trainer.
    Do you write time-travel? It would be entertaining for a character who travels back to the time of the crime, (for some twist in reason, they can't go to the scene), then helps to catch the errors in processing the case so it could be solved in the present.


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