Can New NIJ ‘Best Practices’ Solve the ‘Cold Case Crisis’?

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James Adcock

James Adcock

Earlier this summer, a working group convened by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) concluded a long-awaited effort to develop best practices for addressing what has been one of the most neglected—and most serious—crises of our criminal justice system.

That crisis is the accumulated—and growing—number of unsolved murders.

Since 1980, the U.S. has accumulated over 250,000 unsolved murders.

Based on 2017 FBI data, the clearance or solve rate for homicides was about 61 percent. To put it in a more chilling way: out of every ten homicides in this country, four are unsolved.

Things will get worse. Research has also shown that roughly 6,000 to 7,000 unsolved cases are added to the mix each year.

But the working group, comprising 36 experts from all over the country, from detectives and federal agents to DNA experts and prosecuting attorneys, made clear that there are practical solutions to the nation’s “cold case crisis.”

The working group’s recommendations were published in July by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), entitled “National Best Practices for Implementing and Sustaining a Cold Case Investigation Unit.”

As a member of the NIJ Cold Case Working Group for four years, I found the experience challenging—even as it has increased my impatience to get the nation’s law enforcement agencies working to solve the crisis before it overwhelms us.

Readers of The Crime Report will know that I have long been urging an aggressive national effort to address this too-often overlooked challenge to public safety.

So the publication of the NIJ booklet brings special satisfaction.

The booklet makes clear why this is a compelling issue for our justice system

“As a matter of public safety and to ensure justice for victims, a priority of all law enforcement agencies — federal, state, and local — is to solve all cases, regardless of the amount of time that has passed,” the NIJ booklet declares.


Illustration by olarte.ollie via Flickr

It’s worthwhile remembering the nature of the challenge.

Research has shown that of all those agencies who have cold cases, only about 18 percent actually have a cold case unit—leaving all the other cases unattended to gather dust.

And if a family member doesn’t speak up and ask questions, the cases rarely get any attention.

The NIJ document contains 23 recommendations for implementing and sustaining a cold case investigation unit. Unless agencies around the country adopt those recommendations, we will continue to put off a problem that is only bound to grow.

For those who are interested, I have also developed a series of regular podcasts that will provide some additional context. The first two podcasts were broadcast this month, and I invite Crime Report readers to sample them.

Key Principles

There are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in counties, cities and states across the country—all with different capabilities in terms of resources and personnel.

But the operating principles for developing cold case units can be adapted to the needs of individual agencies, regardless of their size.

Here’s a shortlist of the five key strategies that can get the process underway:

    • Conduct a needs assessment and scope of a cold case investigation unit;
    • Based on those needs, design a unit with proper guidelines and the utilization of stakeholders;
    • Implement a cold case unit that is defined and dedicated to investigating only cold cases;
    • Set in place an organized operating system that actively engages the prosecutor, with a team that is geared towards maximum effectiveness; and
    • Identify support for the cold case investigation unit by utilizing resources outside of the departments, such as academics, interns, students, and others who may be experts in their own fields, but who can provide some insight and maybe new ideas.

And last, but certainly not least, all agencies should keep in mind the surviving families—those who have suffered a terrible loss at the hands of a perpetrator who is still unidentified.

These “forgotten victims” are among the key reasons for tackling the cold case crisis.

No one expects it to be easy.

Some legislators and criminal justice professionals might ask, considering all the other challenges facing our criminal justice system, why we should spend time and money on murders that have been gathering dust in police files—in some cases for decades.

Three other motivating reasons should be kept in mind.

    • It will improve our criminal justice system;
    • It will increase public safety by getting bad actors off the streets; and
    • It will help to regain public confidence in our criminal justice system while increasing clearance rates not only for homicides, but for other violent crimes as well.

We should not focus on how much will it cost us to conduct cold case investigations, but rather on how much will it cost us if we don’t.

James Adcock, Ph.D., is President and Founder of the Mid-South Cold Case Initiative. He welcomes comments from readers.

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