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Colorado’s Cold Case Task Force: A Blueprint for Improving Cold Case Investigation and Developing Trust between Co-victims and Law Enforcement

Derek Regensburger, Adjunct Instructor, Criminology, Colorado State University



Unresolved or “cold case” homicides represent some of the most challenging cases for law enforcement to successfully solve and prosecute. Despite growing media attention and increasing public awareness of the issue over the past decade, solutions to unresolved homicides continue to largely elude investigators. A 2011 Rand study of over 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide revealed that 1 in 20 cold case investigations result in arrest and only 1 in 100 result in conviction.1 That same study found that 20 percent of the responding agencies had protocols for investigating unresolved cases and only 7 percent had a formal cold case unit.2 Thus, it is not surprising that many commentators feel that unresolved homicides are “one of the most significant challenges facing law enforcement agencies nationwide.”3 Perhaps the biggest challenge to successfully resolving such cases is a lack of resources at the local level that would allow law enforcement to devote full-time efforts to investigating them. While a few agencies have created dedicated cold case units, most have relied on ad hoc efforts or volunteers (usually retired investigators) to address the issue.

Because of the real or perceived lack of progress on their loved ones’ cases, surviving family members or co-victims often feel anger and frustration towards law enforcement. In one study of family members and friends of Colorado cold case homicide victims, researchers found that lack of communication by law enforcement was a major issue and that families overwhelmingly wanted to be updated on the status of their loved ones’ cases. For example, only 1 in 37 survey respondents reported that they were satisfied with the level of communication from law enforcement.4 This dissatisfaction can result in a culture of mistrust between victims’ families and the law enforcement community.

Due to such concerns, the state of Colorado adopted a novel approach to enhancing cold case investigations. In 2007, it became the second state (Arizona was the first) to form a cold case task force at the state level. This article traces the creation of the task force, explores the hurdles and challenges that the task force faced at the outset, notes its successes and failures, and lays out a framework for other states to follow in Colorado’s footsteps.


History of the Colorado Cold Case Task Force

Much of the impetus to form a cold case investigation team and task force at the state level came from the victims’ organization Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP). Founded in 2001, the group initially organized around the idea of putting up billboards to drive leads in the cases connected to its members. In 2004, after surveying its members about their needs, FOHVAMP shifted its focus to promoting a state-funded cold case squad. It also created an inventory of cold cases throughout the state by surveying each local agency for information that was largely unknown before that effort. The group also held annual meetings where members could meet with the detectives assigned to their loved ones’ cases and educate themselves about the criminal justice process.5

In 2007, FOHVAMP joined forces with state legislators sympathetic to its mission and parallel bills were introduced to address the issue of cold case investigations at the state level. One bill established a cold case investigation team at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) while simultaneously creating a task force to address best practices and other issues.6 Among other things, the legislation mandated that both law enforcement and family members be represented on the panel and created a cold case team within the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Another bill would have abolished the death penalty in Colorado and used the savings to fund the cold case unit.7 Ultimately, only the first bill passed and funding for only one full-time analyst was obtained for this new investigation unit at the state level. The legislation also tasked the new team with developing a statewide inventory of cold cases.

Despite the funding setback, the task force began meeting quarterly at the end of 2007. A 15-member panel was established that included high-ranking law enforcement officials from around Colorado, district attorneys, and members of the attorney general’s office, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and FOHVAMP. The first series of meetings can be described only as tense, with law enforcement representatives sitting on the opposite side of a conference table from the family representatives. The Deputy Executive Director Kathy Sasak of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, who has chaired all the meetings of the task force, credits a simple act—randomly shuffling the name placards on the seating assignments—with breaking the ice. “It forced people to sit next to each other and talk. We learned to walk in each other’s shoes.”8

Sasak recalls that there was quite a bit of trepidation before the first meeting that family members would simply vent their frustration and anger over the lack of progress on their loved ones’ cases. When this did, in fact, occur, Sasak believes the family members relayed a message that needed to be heard. She said it was “unconscionable” to learn that some people hadn’t heard from law enforcement in year regarding their cases. Sasak feels that the tone of these early meetings “really opened some people’s eyes and told us that we couldn’t continue to ignore these cases.” As the task force matured, a more positive relationship was established between family members and law enforcement, as the latter learned to understand the victims’ perspective, and family members realized that the investigators truly cared about the cases.9

The task force meetings also helped raise awareness of cold case investigation throughout the state. Retired Denver Police Lieutenant and Homicide Detective Jonathyn Priest believes that the task force provided a “catalyst that caused agencies to realize the importance of investigating cold cases.”10 Paul Stretesky, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, believes that the creation of the cold case task force sent a message that “we’re serious about cold cases in Colorado.”11 Boulder County District Attorney, Stan Garnett, credits the task force with getting law enforcement professionals “to talk about cold cases in a way that is not hopeless. The task force conveys a sense that things can be done. We now say no homicide is ever closed.”12

Sasak advises states looking to emulate Colorado to take a few key steps to ensure the success of a task force. She preaches listening and patience. She believes that staying open and developing trust between participants are critical. She also instructs that leadership should not be afraid of criticism. Another key to success is balancing the makeup of the task force both geographically and politically. Sasak urges choosing the right people from law enforcement to serve on the panel. She notes that “it’s critical to get leadership involved.”13 Priest agrees. He cautions other states that if agency heads regard the creation of a task force as “window dressing,” it won’t be successful. A cold case task force needs to receive buy-in from agency heads, including prosecutors and laboratory personnel, to succeed.14

Preventing inertia from setting in once initial goals have been met is another challenge. A few solutions to complacency have been discovered, such as term limits for task force members, which help to bring new voices to the panel. Follow-up studies of victims and law enforcement have also helped guide future planning. Co-victims were also invited to attend meetings to tell their personal tragedies, and Sasak credits these stories as reminders for the members that more progress needs to be made.


Cold Case Database and Law Enforcement Survey

One of the first tasks charged to the cold case team at CBI was to create an inventory of cold cases statewide. The statute mandated that the team develop a database of all homicides since 1970 that had been open longer than three years.15 The statute also required each Colorado law enforcement agency to provide the specified information for inclusion in the database.

Audrey Simkins, the CBI intelligence analyst assigned to developing the cold case database, acknowledges that it was a daunting undertaking to collect the information at the outset. The biggest challenge was obtaining the information from all the local agencies across the state; she even resorted to personally researching some of the cases. Sasak went to a lot of law enforcement meetings to relay the importance of providing the information and reminding law enforcement agencies of their statutory duty to provide it.16 After a bit of nudging, most agencies complied and provided the information.

Once a complete inventory of cases was created, it was Simkins’ job to assemble the data in a usable format. Initially created as a spreadsheet file, the inventory is now a fully searchable website. It contains information on all of Colorado’s unsolved homicides since 1970, long-time missing person cases, and unidentified remains. The public can view basic case information such as a case narrative and victim demographics, while law enforcement can see more such as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) entries. The database is searchable by several criteria, including name, year, and judicial district. Simkins believes the database has promoted information sharing and a team approach amongst agencies.17 Priest believes that one of the keys to the database’s success has been requiring that cases are uploaded into ViCAP. He feels connections between cases are easier to make at the local level and credits the ViCAP format with creating a need to share information.18 The database has proven to be so successful that other states have modeled their efforts after Colorado’s.19

Dr. Prabha Unnithan, a criminologist from Colorado State University, was appointed to assist the task force to simultaneously survey local law enforcement agencies about their needs and resources related to cold case investigation. The results of the law enforcement survey highlighted that the biggest need for agencies was more resources.20 It also revealed that many agencies were not complying with the statutory mandate that victims’ families had to be notified about the status of their loved ones’ cases. The survey has since been repeated to assess the impact of the training programs and other recommendations made by the task force. The second survey revealed that things had improved: there was a greater consciousness of the issues surrounding unresolved homicides, a significant number of law enforcement personnel had taken the cold case training course, and more agencies were performing victim notifications.21

Dr. Unnithan believes it is important for states to perform this type of survey because it helps “get a sense of how agencies view the issue of unresolved homicides, and what they are doing about it.”22 He offers a couple of suggestions to states looking to do similar statewide surveys. First, he recommends having an independent party collect and analyze the data to alleviate the issue of politics. Dr. Unnithan believes that those in academia don’t have the biases and agendas held by e law enforcement and victims’ organizations. Second, he preaches patience. It took almost a year to collect the data for the second survey, and several reminder emails and postcards had to be sent out before some agencies would respond.


Training

Not surprisingly, two common themes emerged from the law enforcement survey: (1) agencies needed training on cold case homicide investigation, and (2) they needed more resources to conduct such investigations. The task force formed a curriculum subcommittee to establish a statewide training program. After 10 meetings, the subcommittee produced a training program and manual that was adopted for statewide use beginning in 2010.23 The state received a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) grant to cover the costs of conducting quarterly training programs across the state. Originally designed in a talking head video format, the program has evolved into a more traditional live-lecture format. The program consists of a two-day course and is open to law enforcement, district attorneys, and victim advocates. The first part of the course covers the basics of homicide and cold case investigation, while the second part contains a practicum where participants examine an actual homicide case. Topics include homicide investigation, crime scene processing, interview and interrogation techniques, and issues concerning co-victims.24 According to Priest, the most successful outcome of the training program is that it “has created an interest on the part of investigators to look at old cases.”25

Priest has several suggestions for states looking to implement a similar training regimen. First, the course designers should develop standard protocols for cold case investigation by examining those in place at the agencies that have achieved the most success in solving cold cases. Second, he believes that it is imperative to choose trainers who are interested and invested in making the process work. Selecting trainers who really know the material and are experts in cold case investigation is another important consideration. Third, since the curriculum is constantly being updated, the presentation team also needs to have consistency. “It’s not something you can just drop on someone’s desk,” Priest cautions.26 Fourth, he feels it is important to ensure that course participants have a “desire and need for the information.” Because the course has to cater to both experienced investigators and novices alike, it can be challenging to keep everyone’s interest level. One way to alleviate this issue is to offer both a basic and more advanced course, although Priest believes that attending a refresher course can be good for even experienced investigators. He poses a valid question: If investigators currently understand and implement all the basics of homicide investigation, why don’t they solve more cases? He emphasizes it is important for investigators to “handle all cases the same, regardless of what you know and when you know it.”27


Cold Case Review Team

One of the issues that restricted the development of a full-time cold case investigative team at the state level in Colorado is the fact that the CBI doesn’t have original jurisdiction over unresolved cases. A request for assistance from the originating local agency is required before CBI can become involved in the investigation. In addition, CBI receives no dedicated funding for cold case investigation from the state, other than for the one analyst previously mentioned. To combat these issues, public safety officials began discussing what could be done to assist cold case investigations across the state within those parameters. The idea for a cold case review team, modeled after the Vidoq Society, was then hatched by senior officials. The review team began meeting in 2010 and continues to meet quarterly, reviewing 1–2 cases per meeting.28

Comprised of 27 volunteer members ranging from state investigators and laboratory personnel to forensic pathologists, the team reviews the presentation of the cold case by the investigating agency. Team members answer questions that the agency might have about the evidence or case investigation and make suggestions for additional steps that might be taken to generate new leads or shore up loose ends.29

In order to facilitate an efficient discussion of the case during the review team meetings, the CBI developed a lengthy application process that requires the submitting agency to take several steps before a case can be heard. Agencies must answer numerous questions about the investigation, including the types of evidence collected and its availability; information about the victim, suspect, and weapon used; and whether ViCAP entries have been made.30 A case summary and timeline must also be created. If selected, the agency must prepare a PowerPoint presentation of the case investigation and scene photographs. CBI Director, Ron Sloan, notes that the application process is “rigorous enough for us to effectively review cases, but not so rigorous as to discourage application [to the team].”31 The application process also helps the review team committee select cases that have the best chance for successful resolution.

Sloan admits that agencies raised a few concerns about the review team at the outset. Initially, some agencies felt their investigations might be compromised by sharing information with so many individuals. Sloan notes that this hasn’t been an issue since all the members are professionals and are bound by confidentiality. While Sloan was also initially worried that agencies would perceive that CBI was trying to take cold cases from them, the review team has successfully combated this potential misconception by emphasizing it is a “collective group of individuals that will provide assistance only if an agency requests or needs it.” As Priest points out, everyone has different experiences to bring to the table.32

Another concern that had to be overcome was that some investigators were reluctant to submit their cases for fear their investigations would be picked apart. Sloan cautions that “if an agency is reluctant or defensive about their investigation, they might as well not show up.”33 This fear has largely been minimized, however, since all recommendations are kept between review team members and the agency.

One of the keys to achieving a successful outcome is having skilled professionals serve on the team, including both prosecutors and investigators. Garnett feels that creating an environment free from “finger pointing and blaming” is also necessary to facilitate an open exchange of ideas.34 Scheduling meetings with so many attendees can pose a logistical challenge as well. Although Sloan admits that it has been a challenge to get all 27 people to each meeting, attendance usually reaches 75–80 percent. He also recognizes that re-staffing the team as members are promoted or change careers is another hurdle that must be overcome.

Despite these challenges, Sloan feels the review team has been very productive since it has helped reinvigorate or create new investigate leads in many cases. Garnett believes the review team helps “break through the tunnel vision that can develop in an office” and provides a fresh perspective on the cases.35 Given its minimal cost, Sloan wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to another state because the “program sells itself.”36

Involvement of Prosecutors

Prosecutors play an important role in the ultimate success or failure of cold case investigations, since they decide whether the case gets charged and proceeds to trial. In comparison to the probable cause standard for arresting a suspect, prosecutors have a higher burden of proof to overcome at trial; they also have an ethical obligation to ensure that they have a reasonable likelihood of conviction before charging a case. Consequently, they walk a fine line between upholding that ethical obligation and appearing to dodge tough cases when they decide not to prosecute a cold case.

Prosecutors can feel the ire of law enforcement and co-victims alike when they decline to charge a cold case that appears to have been solved. First, both co-victims and law enforcement can feel that policies at the prosecutor’s office prevent unresolved cases from going forward. After years of waiting before his sister’s case was brought forward to trial, one victim’s brother summed it up this way: “We just needed someone in the DA’s office to make a tough decision.”37 Priest concurs with that sentiment. He has conducted cold case training seminars nationwide and believes that the biggest resistance from participants is that investigators feel they don’t have a prosecutor who will take the cases forward even if they solve them. While acknowledging that the passage of time creates unique evidentiary issues and that there are some merits to waiting for more evidence to surface, Priest believes some prosecutors hide behind their ethical obligation.38 Garnett freely admits some prosecutors are afraid to take tough cases to trial as well. To discourage that attitude, Garnett has tried to create a culture in his office that “encourages prosecutors to try hard cases and not punish them for the results.”39

Second, victims’ families feel frustrated at the lack of communication coming from the prosecutor’s office regarding their loved one’s case, particularly over the fact that charging decisions are often not fully explained. Garnett knows that communication is critical. “Prosecutors have to fairly, honestly, and frequently communicate with victims’ families.” He acknowledges that while family members won’t always agree with the prosecutor’s decisions, they should at least leave the office with a better understanding of what is going on.40

To combat these problems, Colorado has solicited the involvement of prosecutors in both the task force and the review team meetings. Garnett and Sloan both believe that prosecutors’ involvement in the review team has been critical to its success. Garnett notes that good prosecutors are valuable assets because they can “project how evidentiary issues [unique to unresolved cases] will play out in court.”41

Conclusion

The creation of the state task force has undoubtedly spurred several improvements in the investigation of cold cases in Colorado. Many jurisdictions have implemented some or all of the best practices developed by the task force, training has raised the level of cold case investigation in the state, and the review team provides another avenue for investigators to pursue leads. Perhaps the biggest improvement has been made in the arena of communication between law enforcement and victims’ families. Stretesky credits the training program with helping law enforcement interact better with victims’ families. At the most recent annual meeting of FOHVAMP, many law enforcement officers were in attendance, who conducted respectful discussions with co-victims about their cases.

More still needs to be done, however. Simkins notes that resources are the “driving force” behind making more progress, and most participants in the process believe that the single biggest need is the funding of cold case investigation at the state level.42 Priest believes that the review team would be more effective if it was a full-time job funded by the state, not just a gathering of volunteers, and Garnett believes that state funding for cold case investigation would help alleviate local budgetary variances. Perhaps this issue of funding will be one of the issues the task force targets in the future. Originally scheduled to end in 2012, the task force was reauthorized by the state legislature and is slated to continue through at least 2019.43 

Notes:
1 Robert C. Davis, Carl Jensen, and Karin E. Kitchens, Cold Case Investigations: An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes (Rand Center on Quality Policing, 2011), xii.
2 Ibid.
3 Serving Survivors of Homicide Victims During Cold Case Investigations: A Guide for Developing a Law Enforcement Protocol (National Sheriff’s Association, 2011), 33, http://www.sheriffs.org/sites/default/files/uploads/guidefordevelopingalawenforcementprotocolaugust172011.pdf (accessed February 14, 2014).
4 Paul Stretesky et al., “Sense-making and Secondary Victimization among Unsolved Homicide Co-Victims,” Journal of Criminal Justice 38 (2010): 882, http://www.unresolvedhomicides.org/pdfs/Journal%20of%20Criminal%20Justice.pdf (accessed February 20, 2014).
5 Howard Morton (co-founder and executive director emeritus of FOHVAMP) email message to Derek Regensburger, September 11, 2013.
6 Colo. H. 07-1272, 66th Legis., 1st Sess. (2007).
7 Colo. H. 07-1094, 66th Legis., 1st Sess. (2007).
8 Kathy Sasak (deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety), interview by the author, August 29, 2013.
9 Ibid.
10 Jonathyn Priest (consultant for Bevel, Gardner & Assoc.), interview by the author, September 25, 2013.   
11 Paul Stretesky (assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver School of Public Affairs), interview by the author, September 20, 2013.
12 Stan Garnett (district attorney for the 20th Judicial District in Boulder, Colorado), interview by the author, August 29, 2013.
13 Sasak, interview.
14 Priest, interview.
15 Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 24-33.5-425 (2013).
16 Sasak, interview.
17 Audrey Simkins (intelligence analyst with Colorado Bureau of Investigation) telephone interview by the author, September 13, 2013.
18 Priest, interview.
19 Serving Survivors of Homicide Victims, National Sherriff’s Association, 12.
20 Stretesky,”Sense-making and Secondary Victimization.”
21 Dr. Prabha Unnithan (professor of sociology at Colorado State University), interview by the author, November 13, 2013.
22 Ibid.
23 Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA), 2011 Sunset Review: Colorado Cold Case Task Force (October 14, 2011), 5 (accessed February 20, 2014).
24 Jonathyn Priest et al, Cold Case Homicide Investigation Strategies and Best Practices, Participant Manual (2013).
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 DORA, 2011 Sunset Review, 8.
29 “Cold Case Review Team Protocol,” Colorado Bureau of Investigation (2013).
30 “Review Team Application,” Colorado Bureau of Investigation Cold Case (2013).
31 Ron Sloan, (director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation), interview by the author, August 12, 2013.
32 Priest, interview.
33 Sloan, interview.
34 Garnett, interview.
35 Ibid.
36 Sloan, interview.
37 Neil Siegrist, (co-victim) interview by the author, September 5, 2013.
38 Priest, interview.
39Garnett, interview.
40 Ibid.
41 Ibid.
42 Simkins, interview.
43 DORA, 2011 Sunset Review.

Please cite as:

Derek Regensburger, “Colorado’s Cold Case Task Force: A Blueprint for Improving Cold Case Investigation and Developing Trust between Co-victims and Law Enforcement,” web-only article, The Police Chief 81 (March 2014): http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=3275&issue_id=32014 (accessed XXXX).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 3, March 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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