Cover: Cold-Case Investigations

Cold-Case Investigations

An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes

Published Oct 26, 2011

by Robert C. Davis, Carl Jensen, Karin E. Kitchens


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The number of cold-case units and the expenditures to fund them are increasing, but little is known about the return on this investment. This report seeks to help better understand cold-case investigation, discussing the status of cold-case investigations in the United States and examining factors associated with successful cold-case investigations. It asks what the current practices of law enforcement agencies are with respect to investigating cold cases and what strategies agencies can use, based on the likelihood of success, to prioritize cold-case investigations. A national survey of law enforcement agencies was used to determine whether and how agencies conducted cold-case investigations, while samples were drawn from investigative case files in four cities to determine attributes of cold cases that are associated with case clearance, arrest, and conviction. The survey revealed that most agencies do little cold-case work, cold-case funding is tenuous, success rates for cold-case investigations are low, and agency factors associated with higher clearance rates included level of funding and access to investigative databases. The case-file analysis revealed that one can identify factors that predict whether a cold-case investigation will be successful, including the basis for initiating the cold-case investigation, characteristics of the victim and crime, progress made during the initial investigation, and actions of cold-case investigators; clearing a cold case does not automatically lead to making an arrest; in sexual-assault cold cases, even when a suspect DNA match has been made, about one-third of cases are not filed because of problems with victim cooperation, credibility, or availability of suspects who are deceased or in prison, but those cases that are prosecuted resulted in convictions and lengthy prison terms more than 90 percent of the time; and cooperation between police and prosecutors can improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of cold-case investigations.

This research was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and was conducted in the RAND Center on Quality Policing within the Safety and Justice Program of RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment.

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