COMMISSIONER of Police Gary Griffith’s plan for the introduction of a Cold Cases Missing Persons Unit is a step in the right direction. However, while it may be useful for such a unit to have a special focus on missing people alone, its scope should, properly, also cover unsolved homicides and unresolved suspicious deaths.
For sure, the introduction of a cold cases unit will be objected to by some who may regard such a unit as an admission of defeat. We expect our system of crime and punishment to be effective and fast. When something bad happens, society demands justice and, as the adage goes, justice delayed is justice denied. A cold cases unit is an acknowledgement that there are cases routinely slipping through the cracks for which there may be no end in sight.
Others may also point to the costs of these kinds of units. According to a 2011 study by the RAND Centre on Quality Policing, only one in five cold cases is cleared by cold case units in the US. At the same time, it was determined by the researchers that these units only yielded better results whenever they were given larger and larger proportions of overall budgetary funding.
But solving one in five cases is preferable to solving none. And there are many compelling reasons why a cold cases unit is a useful intervention. Unsolved crimes extract a great toll on the victims’ families. When people are murdered and society sees no justice done, that does tremendous harm.
In a situation in which there is a mounting backlog of cases yet to be solved, a cold cases unit offers hope for the victims of crime and further sends a strong signal that even old crimes will be subject to action by the law enforcement authorities. A cold cases unit can also streamline scare police resources. Specific officers could be assigned to the unit, freeing up the rest of the service to deal with contemporaneous cases.
All over the world, cold-case investigations have become increasingly commonplace thanks to innovations in crime-fighting such as DNA. Several US states have such units as does the UK’s Metropolitan Police. As this country seeks to move towards greater enforcement of our DNA laws, a cold cases unit could become essential in dealing with the backlog of cases that might, at last, be solved with the aid of new investigative techniques.
However, the name of the new unit, which is undoubtedly still subject to review by Griffith, suggests it will focus on missing people. Though a limited focus may be appropriate initially given scarce resources, we are strongly of the view that the scope of the unit should eventually be expanded. This is essential if it is to fulfil the twin objectives of deterrence and of providing comfort to grieving families.