In this weeks blog Kirsty explores her university PhD work and how this fits in with the work of Locate International.
In 2018, I began my PhD which explores how cold cases, or unsolved murders, are managed and investigated by police forces in England. Although there is limited academic literature available into this phenomenon, it does indicate which type of cases are likely to be the responsibility of cold case units in the UK. Therefore, it was anticipated that these cases would be murders that had not progressed to a trial, or the case had resulted in a not guilty verdict. However, it became immediately obvious during my time with the forces that the situation is more complex. Police forces are also responsible for suspected no-body murders, where the body has yet to be recovered, and long-term missing person cases. These cases may appear quite similar but there are significant differences that make their approaches by police forces slightly different. Once determined that a missing person is highly likely to have been murdered, it is investigated in a similar process to cases where a body has been found. Conversely, for long-term missing person cases the individual might have been missing for a long time and there might not be any signs of life, but this does not necessarily mean that a murder has been committed. There may be the chance that the individual has been murdered, or they took their own life, died as the result of an accident (i.e. drowning), or they don’t want to be found.
During my time with one of the police forces, a missing person case had been allocated to some of the investigators in the unit. Given the remit of the case, it was not immediately clear as to why they were conducting a review into this man’s disappearance. Once I began interviewing the investigators for my PhD, I followed up on this particular case to determine why they were reviewing it, and why it was not being managed by another, perhaps more suitable, department. The unit had agreed to look over the case and had discovered that a young man had disappeared twenty years ago, and if his disappearance had occurred now it would have been classified as a ‘high-risk’ missing person. For unknown reasons, the case had fell through the gaps and only came to someone’s attention when a member of the public rang the force to enquire about the case’s status. The member of the public wanted to know what had happened to this young man. The investigators in the unit were shocked to discover nothing had been done in such a long period of time, it did not appear on the spreadsheet for cases allocated to the cold case unit and was not necessarily their responsibility. Nevertheless, the unit began delving into the case and discovered that this young man was likely to have come to harm at the hands of someone else and it should be treated as a no-body murder. Had the member of the public not rung in about this case, what would have happened to this young man?
I want to emphasise that fault is not being laid on anyone’s doorstep, and I am certainly not attributing blame as I recognise that police policies, practices and processes have changed and improved significantly over the past twenty years. Nevertheless, one of the most significant findings from my time with cold case units was how opportunistic the work is. The investigators assigned to cold case units are dealing with cases that have often been investigated thoroughly and exhausted by experienced detectives previously, as well as some having undergone a cold case review before. Therefore, cold cases often require new information and/or witnesses to come forward to help them to progress the case in some way. One way of encouraging people to come forward is through the media. my participants recognised that not all cases would be suitable for media coverage, and so this should be considered on a case by case basis, but that it can be beneficial. Whilst it was recognised that the national television and newspaper media would be the most beneficial for covering these cases, it was often the local media outlets that provided the coverage.
The opportunities to provide coverage of cold cases often occurs on the anniversary of the victim’s death/disappearance, a significant birthday (i.e. their 50th), or when the police are requesting assistance. The media coverage tends to outline what is known about the victim and their circumstances, any significant events in the case, and what the police are requesting assistance with. However, not all media contact is initiated by the police and it can come from a local journalist with an interest in the case, or the victim’s family. Ashley Wellman has published several academic journals with the victim’s family and their experiences with the media from a United States’ context. The victim’s family, referred to as ‘co-victims’, can experience further trauma and upset by engaging with the media but recognise that it is sometimes their only way to progress the case. They actively engage with and encourage media coverage of their case in the hope that it might bring forward new witnesses or those with information.
Throughout the United States when cold cases began receiving attention by police departments and administrators in the 1980s, there was a reliance on witnesses and individuals coming forward after a significant period of time had elapsed. It was anticipated that people’s allegiances might change over the years and that they no longer felt concerned about retaliation from the suspect(s), and so they would be more forthcoming with the investigation. This is still an important trajectory, but the focus has turned to forensic evidence and how it’s advances can help long unresolved cases. Forensic evidence can be helpful and there have been some notable successes, such as the resolution of the following cases: Collette Aram, Nova Welch, Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows, and Norma Richards and her two children. The use of forensic evidence should be exploited as much as possible by police forces if it is to help the case, but this should not be the only option for cold cases.
I have found in my research, and advocate strongly for, the use of the media to remind the public that these cases are still unsolved and that the public might be able to offer some progress with the case, which may lead to a resolution. Perhaps most importantly, the public should be reminded that the family or the murdered or missing victim have not yet had justice and closure and are still awaiting this. Even if the public should feel that their information is only minor, or are even concerned that it is irrelevant, they should be encouraged to come forward and to speak to the police. Let the police judge the importance and relevance of the information, but the details provided might be incredibly helpful for the investigation in some way. If I was in the situation where someone I loved and cared for went missing or their murder was unsolved, I would be incredibly grateful to know the public are willing to help in any way that they could.