Will Cold Cases Get Colder Because of Pandemic?

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Police departments across the United States have had to put some investigations on hold while detectives have their duties shifted around to help enforce social distancing protocols on the street—exacerbating what has been called the “cold case crisis” of unsolved murders piling up in the U.S.

Detective Chris Lyons of the Pinellas County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office has been forced to put down the files of decades-old homicides and missing persons cases, and trade his office desk for the sunny environment of Sunset Beach to ensure beachgoers follow the public health and social distancing rules, the Tampa Bay Times reports. 

To many, he says, it may seem like a much-needed vacation, but Lyons says he can’t stop thinking about the unsolved cases back in his office.

To make the eight-hour shifts of strolling the sands go by faster, he tends to his emails in an effort to not fall behind on case leads. Lately, he’s been working on an unsolved sexual battery from 1999, and he says he and the other cold case detectives in the department can’t wait to get back to digging.

Across the country, the manilla-folder case files are still piling up in police departments as detectives grapple with the changes that the pandemic has brought to traditional investigation practices.

Detectives are forced to try to connect with people in the community while covering half of their face behind thick masks.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak that has halted life as we know it in many cities, evidence still has to be collected, statements must be made in person, and death notifications have to take place face-to-face, reports Stefanie Dazio of the Associated Press. 

In some investigations, like cyber or financial crime cases, “interviews can be transitioned to the phone to preserve social distancing,” Dazio says.

But for other cases that rely on more personal human interaction, such as sexual abuse, rape, or murder cases, “in-person interviews are a necessity.”

While some detectives are enforcing social distancing protocols, others are still going into their precincts and taking on countless more hours than usual. Detectives are forced to cover for their colleagues and partners who are out sick because of the virus.

In New York City alone, over 4,000 members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) have tested positive for the virus. At one point in April, about 20 percent of their uniformed workforce were out sick, CNN reports. 

The most recent data also details that the NYPD has seen 29 virus-related deaths.

This has put an incredible strain on moral and motivation for all those in law enforcement, potentially leading to cold cases getting colder.

Former New York Police Department Sgt. Joe Giacalone told AP News that the criminals who are going undetected as police departments cope with this ‘new normal’ weighs heavily on his mind.

“That becomes a bigger problem down the road,” Giacalone, a former cold case detective who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explains.

“Investigators prevent further victimization by getting these guys off the streets.”

But, when law enforcement is worn thin, the officers and detectives who are healthy enough to stay on the job are doing everything they can to make sure that cases continue to get solved, and that the community feels connected to their work.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives are working on building trust with children in abusive situations by giving “air hugs” and teaching them phrases like “I love you” in sign language in the hopes that this new kind of interaction will overcome what many see as the “impersonal nature of masks and social distancing,” the AP News details.

“They’ll do anything they can to make these kids and these victims feel safe,” said Carlos Marquez, a detective division commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

And, in an effort to take advantage of more people staying at home and being online, the Utah Department of Public Safety used social media to ask community residents to look at a list of over 400 unsolved cases, a local CBS news affiliate reports.  

“Did you know you can use your screen time to help possibly solve a cold case?” the Utah Department of Public Safety Twitter post read, with a link attached to where users can comb through homicide, missing persons, and unidentified deceased persons cases.

The coronavirus pandemic can’t keep law enforcement officers from doing the work they love and care so much about, say detectives, who maintain it has only reinvigorated their passion to find justice for the victims of long-ago crimes.

New Jersey’s Bergen County Chief of Detectives Robert Anzilotti told AP News: “We’re being more than thorough enough to make sure we sustain a conviction.”

See also: Can New NIJ Best Practices Solve Cold Case Crisis? The Crime Report

Andrea Cipriano, a staff writer at TCR, prepared this summary.