I’ve been concerned about the rise of unsolved homicides in California as well as across the entire US for some time now. Most that follow me know that I’ve voiced my concerns about crime and cold cases. I’ve been hearing some of the reasons why, or excuses, as to why police aren’t closing more homicide cases. In fact, over the past three years cold cases have risen. Many law enforcement agencies claim it’s the lack of manpower, training, and budget restrictions. With the widespread use of the Internet, social media, and advancement of DNA and other forensic applications, cold cases should be falling in number–not rising.
I’ve had the privilege to meet and talk with various individuals in law enforcement from California to New York. I’ve spent more than a thousand hours on patrol ride alongs, observing criminal investigations, conducting research, interviewing police officers, listening to community concerns and answering police-community questions. I’ve also been a part of numerous radio shows highlighting and discussing both missing and cold cases. Cold cases are a continuing problem—they need to be addressed—and we need some answers.
I’m very excited to sit down and chat with Joe Giacalone, retired NYPD Sergeant, former Commanding Officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad and Adjunct Professor at John Jay College. He’s definitely one of my favorite experts to talk about crime with. Today I’m going to ask him some difficult questions about cold cases.
Let’s see what he has to say…
Does the declining clearance rate for homicides across the country concern you?
Yes, it has been a problem for decades. From 2016 alone, there are almost 7,000 additional cases that need to be cleared. As a former commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad I know how time consuming and overwhelming a case load like this can be. Many departments don’t have a cold case squad that is solely focused on solving them. Each one of those cases is a victim and a family waiting for justice.
Do you think the status of homicide cold cases will continue to rise? Why or why not?
The trend for the past two years has been up. Homicides were up a combined 19% in 2015 and 2016. The 2017 numbers haven’t been calculated yet. Shrinking police departments, a lack of candidates, and a lack of experience have all led to the decline in good policing. Add that to the negative attitude towards police and you have a formula for “de-policing”. Police departments are not proactive anymore. In the face of public and political scrutiny, many cops have resorted to reactive policing—waiting for it to happen.
What procedures or investigative techniques have changed in the past 5 years to help assist cold case investigations? The last 10 years?
What I refer to as the Three (3) Forensic Horsemen will move a case forward:
I think the advancements of DNA such as what we saw with the Golden State Killer Case and DNA Phenotyping are exciting areas. My only concern now are the courtroom battles and admissibility issues with cases such as GSK. We have standards that the new technology must pass through. Depending on your state, it’s either Frye or Daubert. Frye is the much tougher standard.
If you could make a statement to all police chiefs and sheriffs across the nation in regard to cold cases, what would it be?
I would make three points:
- Your homicide clearance rates are probably miserable. If you close a cold case today, no matter how old it is, it counts towards the clearance rate in the year it was closed. That should help.
- If you don’t have a cold case unit, no matter how small, you are doing the public a disservice.
- Cold cases are long-term endeavors. They need personnel, resources and the patience to deal with them.
What would be a way to begin to clear cold cases (procedure, personnel, forensic applications) if this was your responsibility?
- One investigator—one case
- Group—a number of investigators on one case
Each one has it’s pros and cons, but in my opinion, choosing the right case is the most important step. Not every case can be solved, so stick with the ones that have the most solvability factors.
My best advice for cold case investigators is to read the investigative reports last. If you read them first, you will more than likely be lead down the same path the other investigator was on. Since the case is still open, that is not a good idea. When you start examining one of these cases, investigator error is a strong likelihood on why it was open. If the body dropped today, would you have access to reports? No. So, start with the crime scene photos and move forward from there.
What would be a way for the public to assist local police departments to help clear more homicides?
Crowdsourcing. There are members of the public that have requisite skills to search for information on the Internet and some have the extra time too. The only thing is that they have to think in evidentiary value. If they find something interesting, a record of screen shots, web links as well as date and time found must be kept.
Family members can help too. Start a Facebook Page, halo disseminate police flyers, and contact they local Crime Stoppers office for reward money. There are many things the family and the public can do that are free besides your time.
Finally, what would you like to add in regard to cold cases?
Cold Case investigators are the last liaison between the police and the public. If police chiefs are interested in building bridges to the community, this is a way to do it. With all of the new technologies, advancements in forensics and databases, police departments need to get their act together. There should be no reason why clearance rates keep on dropping. I don’t think DNA or forensic science has let us down, it’s the leadership in police departments that has accomplished that.
If you are concerned about privacy issues that the GSK revealed and you are not concerned with all the data breaches, I think you need to reexamine who you give your personal information to.
Thank you so much Joe Giacalone for your candor and taking the time to answer some important questions. This gives us so much to ponder.
More information about Joe Giacalone:
Joe is a retired NYPD Sergeant, former Commanding Officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad, Adjunct Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators 3rd Ed.
Joe is a frequent TV media guest who has been published in the USA Today, Baltimore Sun, NY Newsday and the Buffalo News.