What Makes a Good Cold Case Detective?

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Lissa Marie Redmond

Everyone knows cold cases just got easier to solve. Detectives now dump recovered DNA into a couple of databases and a match will pop out, right? If only it were that simple. Even with the database resources, it takes a lot more than a DNA match to solve a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Cases go cold for a number of reasons: lack of physical evidence, lack of a suspect, conflicting or no witnesses. There can be many causes for homicides go cold after those first important 48 hours. It then becomes the job of the cold case detective to find out what those reasons are and try to take a fresh approach to an old case.

But what makes a good cold case detective?

Cold case detectives aren’t better than regular homicide detectives. They aren’t smarter, or more talented, or luckier. But good cold case detectives do have to possess certain traits and skills to make them successful in re-investigating homicides.

Patience – Cold case detectives are always waiting for something: lab results, witnesses to show up, evidence to be re-examined by the lab. These things can take days to weeks to months. The job is not for the A-type get-it-done-now personality. For cold cases, slow and steady really does win the race.

Ability to Research – You have to be able to comb through records from various sources and have the means to do so. I knew how to look up newspaper articles and police reports on microfiche. I had a cassette tape player, access to a VCR, a DVD player, a micro tape player for old answering machine tapes, and a tangle of cords in my desk to fit every type of cellphone. Conversely, you must be able to learn to use cutting edge technology to aid in your investigations. Investigators who refuse to reach out to experts who use computer programs to enhance photos, isolate sounds on recordings, or pinpoint locations with cell towers are just as bad off as someone who refuses to learn how to use obsolete technology. Flexibility is key.

An Open Mind – A good cold case investigator knows that anyone can be a suspect. People don’t want to believe that parents can harm their children or vice-versa. They don’t want to think that a pillar of the community or someone in whom great trust has been placed is capable of murder. Anyone, under the right circumstances, is capable of committing unspeakable acts. A good cold case detective doesn’t dismiss someone as a suspect just because they don’t fit their idea of who a suspect should be in a particular case.

Tenacity – This might be the most important trait of a good cold case investigator. They must be able to ask for things. Then ask again. And keep asking until they get an answer.

A good cold case detective never, never, never gives up.

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