The Newest Police Crimefighting Tool: Podcasts

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Illustration by Tony Rice via Flickr

On Aug. 4, 2019, Peter Chadwick, a real estate magnate who fled the country in 2015 after being charged with his wife’s murder, was apprehended in Mexico.

At a press conference two days later, Newport Beach Chief Jon Lewis credited an unusual source for helping with the investigation: the true-crime podcast “Countdown to Capture,” launched by his California police department a year earlier.

“What this podcast did was increase awareness and generate leads for us. It also kept this case in the forefront of people’s minds,” Lewis said.

“It’s our belief that we put pressure on Peter, which is something that we wanted to do as well, and that was the reason we chose to use this vehicle.”

Jennifer Manzella, creator and host of the podcast as well as the department’s spokeswoman at the time, was skeptical. The podcast—a largely one-woman project, recorded and produced in Manzella’s bedroom closet—had been an instant hit, notching 400,000 plays and charting in multiple countries shortly after its release, eventually peaking at the 24th-place ranking across all genres in iTunes.

Despite the show’s reach, and the dozens of leads it generated, the tip that led to Chadwick’s capture hadn’t come from a listener. Nevertheless, the podcast, U.S. Marshal David Singer told reporters, had generated attention from media outlets, armchair detectives and other law enforcement agencies.

Because of that, Chadwick was aware of the podcast, Singer said, and he knew that people were looking for him.

man captured by police

Real estate magnate Peter Chadwick, captured after four years on the run, is charged with murdering his wife. Still photo courtesy CBS 48 Hours.

“I think he felt the pressure,” Singer said. “When these people feel pressure, they have to keep moving, they have to spend money, they have to use different IDs, and they make mistakes.”

Manzella hadn’t considered that viewpoint. “He said, basically, ‘You can’t discount that kind of contribution to the case, even if it wasn’t the final nail in the coffin,’” she said. “And I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”

Editor’s Note: Chadwick has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of murder. 

New Take on Popular Genre

“Countdown to Capture,” released in September 2018, is believed to be the first true-crime podcast produced entirely by a police department. It’s a new take on a popular genre, where a podcast host tells the detailed story of a criminal case in chronological fashion, either one episode at a time or all at once.

Before 2018, true-crime podcasts were hosted mostly by investigative journalists, comedians and other media personalities. But in the wake of “Countdown to Capture,” other law enforcement agencies have embraced the medium.

There’s “Break in the Case” from the New York City Police Department and “Silicon Valley Beat” from the Mountain View (California) Police Department. Last year, the Winchester Police Department in northern Virginia detailed one of its cold cases in a podcast titled “Defrost.”

Dozens of other agencies have launched podcasts in other genres, including the Philadelphia Police Department’s “Aftermath Philadelphia,” which examines the city’s gun violence epidemic, and “Our LAPD Story,” which features profiles of Los Angeles police officers, first-person accounts of police work and deep dives into controversial topics like body cameras.

The trend is likely in its infancy, experts said. Professional police organizations don’t track agency-produced podcasts in any official capacity, and there are no standard best practices or tips for departments that may be interested in launching a show.

But the medium makes sense for law enforcement—podcasts are free and easy to download, with a narrative format that makes it simple for officials to present their own take—and it will probably persist as a method of engagement, said Janice Iwama, an associate professor at American University’s Department of Justice, Law & Criminology.

“It’s part of a broader trend of police agencies getting involved in creating public relations roles within their departments,” she said.

“Most of us get our information about what police do from television and movies. I think police agencies hope that they can provide a medium—whether it’s podcasts, or posts on Twitter and Instagram and TikTok—in which they can inform citizens what it is like to do the things they do and why they do the things they do.”

In Newport Beach, Manzella’s motivations were simpler. The department had previously highlighted the 45th anniversary of an unsolved murder by using its Twitter page to tell the victim’s story, an innovative project that attracted broad media attention—along with a number of new leads in the case.

On the heels of that success, a supervisor approached Manzella with the Chadwick case. Would it be possible, he wondered, to publicize it in a similar way?

Chadwick, a wealthy real estate investor, was accused of murdering his wife in their Newport Beach home in 2015. He posted a $1.5 million bond and then disappeared, leaving behind emptied bank accounts and self-help books about living off the grid and changing one’s identity.

The case had been covered extensively at the time, Manzella knew, and after four years with no new developments, reviving that interest wouldn’t be as simple as contacting a magazine or arranging an interview on camera.

“I was kind of stymied,” she said. “The only thing I could really think of would be something like a podcast. And the sergeant said, ‘I like it. Do it.’”

Manzella is not a true-crime fan and does not listen to podcasts. She had never recorded or engineered an audio file and had no fancy equipment at her disposal. There was no funding to devote to the podcast and no one to consult for technological help other than the department’s videographer.

And the project had a deadline: in roughly six weeks, the U.S. Marshals Service planned to move Chadwick to its 15 Most Wanted list, with an increased reward for his capture. The podcast needed to debut in time to coincide with the announcement.

After a moment of panic, Manzella formulated a plan. Some of the work—writing, research, planning—aligned with her regular job duties. The rest of it—recording, engineering, producing—she’d have to figure out.

“I really had to buckle down and get to work,” Manzella said. “We have a videographer who works with the department and we had some folks who had recorded podcasts in their personal lives and had some equipment. We made it on a very tight schedule, on a very tight budget, and I ended up doing a lot of it myself. It’s not a way that I would prescribe for anyone else to attack this.”

Cops Get a Fan Base

The project was always deadline-driven, Manzella said, with the main goal of reigniting public interest in the case as a way to generate new leads about Chadwick’s location. But the media attention was far beyond what the department had anticipated, and any resulting improvement in its reputation or community standing was a happy side effect, she said.

“We did not put this out to get the Newport Beach Police Department on the front page of newspapers. We wanted Peter Chadwick’s face on the front page of newspapers,” she said. “The podcast got attention, and that attention got Peter Chadwick’s face more places, and that got us more tips. That was always the mission.”

Other police podcasts, including the Winchester Police Department’s “Defrost,” were developed initially as tools to increase community engagement. The show, which debuted in March 2020, came after a brainstorming session between the deputy police chief and the city’s spokeswoman, who noted that the city had podcasting equipment that might be available for the department to use.

“I thought we could do something to reach out to the community and help people see us in a different way,” said Amanda Behan, Winchester’s deputy police chief (then a lieutenant and the department’s spokeswoman). “I thought we could discuss some of the issues we come across when we’re doing our investigations.”

Behan scoured the department’s archives for ideas among old case records and uncovered a binder left in a file box. Inside was the story of Lenna Mae Tuttle Robinson, a 71-year-old who died in 1975 after being beaten and left unconscious on the sidewalk. Her purse was found four months later on the roof of a building.

The case was never solved.

“I had an immediate emotional connection to this case,” Behan said. “I couldn’t believe that our department even had a cold case. No one ever talked about it. I couldn’t believe this story had happened in our town, and that it had remained untold.”

Behan identifies as a true-crime fan, but had no experience with the genre beyond reading books and listening to podcasts. She dove into the case, staying in contact with Robinson’s family, chasing down leads and interviewing suspects while producing one episode per month updating her audience on the investigation in real time.

Behan had the help of a co-host—Craig Smith, a retired detective—who provided context from an investigative standpoint, including key differences between the technology that was available in 1975 and the processes, including DNA analysis, that are common today. But the bulk of the work was Behan’s, all of it self-taught and most completed in her spare time.

“I didn’t go through any kind of training,” she said. “I just did what felt natural.”

The podcast had a wide reach, with listeners in every part of the country as well as overseas. Robinson’s family approved of the project, and feedback from people in Winchester has been overwhelmingly positive, Behan said.

The case remains open, though the department recently submitted Robinson’s purse to the state Department of Forensic Science for DNA and latent analysis, which Behan hopes could point to a suspect. (There are several suspects named in the podcast, one of whom is still alive and agreed to submit a DNA sample.)

The purse had been at the department since 1976, Behan said. Investigators had analyzed it for fingerprints, but DNA testing wasn’t available then, and with limited testing capacity and resources, officials had been unable to resubmit it until this year. That’s relatively common in investigations, she said—one of many things she hopes listeners take away from the podcast.

“Law enforcement agencies do make mistakes, but often what are perceived as mistakes aren’t mistakes—they’re barriers that we face in our profession,” she said. “The biggest barrier here was the physical evidence, either trying to get funding to have testing done at a private lab, or trying to get the state lab to accept it.

“A traditional true-crime podcast may have interpreted that as law enforcement just sitting on the evidence, when it’s really a lack of resources.”

Manzella also considered the perception of her department.

Officials in Newport Beach had no idea if the podcast would gain a following, so before proceeding with the project, she considered how it would reflect on the department if it sat forever, unplayed, on the internet.

“At the end of the day when we actually had to hit send on this thing, we kept thinking, ‘Well, what’s the worst that can happen?’” she said. “And we decided the worst was that it would gain no traction and everyone would know that we’re the kind of department that will do everything it can to solve a case.

“For me, as a spokesperson for this department, to be able to project this out and let people know how much we care—that was more of a focus for me than finding the bad guy.”

The podcasts, then, are not impartial—nor are they supposed to be, Iwama said. Police-produced content about policing will inherently focus on the law enforcement agency’s point of view.

“We have so many other sources of information that are already being told out there about an investigation,” she said. “Now agencies have the opportunity to say, ‘ Here’s my information, here’s a look at what we as police officers do.’

“And people know where they’re getting podcasts from. At the end of the day, people know who’s telling the story.”

Candor on Air

While police are necessarily careful about the information they reveal, even on shows produced by their offices—the podcast can’t jeopardize the investigation—being interviewed by their peers still allows officers to be candid in a way they typically aren’t with traditional reporters, Manzella said.

“I had the sergeant in charge of the case record an episode about Peter Chadwick’s kids, who lost their mom,” she said. “It was really emotional, and I know this is a job of emotions, but that’s not the public perception of a police officer. I think he was more open because he knows me and I was interviewing him.

“You can just hear the emotion in his voice, and I think that opened eyes and made people connect to the case in a different way.”

Through her show “Defrost,’ Behan also found a connection to the case.

“This project started as a community outreach effort, and it ended as something completely different,” as a heartfelt story about one woman’s death, she said.

“There are emotional moments in the episodes and they are completely genuine.”

This story, originally published in Route Fifty, is reprinted here through the Solutions Journalism Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to spread rigorous reporting about responses to problems. Kate Elizabeth Queram, a senior reporter for Route Fifty, is based in Washington, D.C.

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