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Policies and practices in cold cases: an exploratory study

NCJ Number
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management Volume: 38 Issue: 4 Dated: 2015 Pages: 610-630
Date Published
21 pages

This paper examines how cold cases are investigated in police departments.


The purpose of this paper is to provide information on how police agencies organize and conduct cold-case investigations. As a result of advances in DNA and other forensic technologies, police agencies are showing increased interest in cold-case investigations, with larger departments dedicating staff to conducting these investigations or forming cold-case squads. To assess the current practices used in cold-case investigations, an exploratory survey was sent to a stratified random sample of police agencies across the US survey findings are based on 1,051 returns. Results include the following. Most agencies do little cold-case work, with only 20 percent having a protocol for initiating cold-case investigations, 10 percent having dedicated cold-case investigators, and 7 percent having a formal cold-case unit. Cold-case funding is tenuous: 20 percent of cold-case work is funded through line items in the budget, with most funded by grants or supplemental funds. Success rates for cold-case investigations are low: about one in five cases are cleared. Agency factors associated with higher clearance rates included level of funding and access to investigative databases. As new forensic tools are developed, cold-case investigations will become an increasingly prominent activity of criminal investigation units. The survey reported on in this paper gives the first glimpse of how agencies are handling these cases. To the authors’ knowledge, there are no other empirical studies on how agencies structure and conduct cold-case investigations. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2015