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Why Most Cold Cases — And Crimes — Remain Unsolved

LAUREN GILGER: The Phoenix Police Department recently announced the launch of a new initiative to bring new attention to old crimes. It's called " Hot Desert, Cold Cases" and it will mostly utilize the department's social media to reach out to highlight unsolved cases from years' past. So how common are cold cases, and how likely are they to be solved years later? For more on that, I got ahold of Jon Gould, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU.

JON GOULD: So I think one of the things that the public doesn't really appreciate, nor would they, is that the vast majority of cases are never solved. And the reason for that is, first of all, fewer than a majority ever get reported to the police. So we have data from 2015. In 2015, only 46% of violent crimes were even reported to the police. Of property crimes, about a third. So think about that for a moment. The majority of even violent crimes never get reported to the police. And then when they do, of violent crimes again, only 46% of them are ever solved. Of property crimes, 19% are solved. So remember, of the property crimes, two-thirds don't get reported, and the third that do get reported, about 20% of them ever get solved.

GILGER: Wow. So let's talk about why. I'm sure there are a lot of factors that go into this. But what are some of the major reasons that so many cases go unsolved?

GOULD: Well, first of all, we need to ask, why is it that people would not report crimes to the police? So, first of all, there is a sense of distrust in some communities about the police. There are certain victims who are trying to protect their perpetrators or scared of their perpetrators. We know, for example, in gang cases that people are reluctant to come forward and report the information. And even when cases do get reported to the police, there's oftentimes not a lot of evidence. So perpetrators can be crafty and get away. Most crime scenes don't have biological evidence. That would be, for example, blood or saliva or even fingerprints that would allow detectives to do any sort of a matching technique. There may not be eyewitnesses, and even when there are witnesses, witnesses may be reluctant to come forward. They may be unavailable. Again, they may be protecting the perpetrators. There are lots and lots of reasons that cases don't get solved. And so I know there's a sense — and I, I've been a victim of crime, myself — that you, you want your, you want your justice and you want the case to be solved. And it seems almost incomprehensible that it wouldn't be solved. And yet that's often the case.

GILGER: Let's talk about the history a little bit. Like, how long have cold case units within departments even been around?

GOULD: The notion of there being, kind of a, that would have been called 'dead cases units,' that, that goes back a ways. But the idea of having cold cases and looking at cold cases is a relatively new phenomenon. I think we can probably trace it to the rise of DNA evidence in the 1990s where it actually was possible when additional evidence was found later to match it to a perpetrator.

GILGER: So tell us about how these units function, like what kind of skills do they have that other officers don't? How do they decide which cases are reinvestigat-able?

GOULD: All these units typically have some of the better detectives attached to them. And it's hard to say why it is that certain cases get investigated. Oftentimes, it's because some new evidence comes to light. So, for example, a witness who had been quiet for years comes forward, someone on a deathbed says something, or biological evidence is found somewhere that can be matched against a crime. We know now that with the swabbing of some arrestees and also some defendants who are convicted, we have new DNA evidence that can be matched. I think there is a tendency to believe that there are citizen journalists out there who are investigating these cases and bringing them to the police. Those are very, very rare.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about what Phoenix Police is doing now to stir up some interest in these cold cases — using social media, trying to get the images, the videos of these people, of what they have out there to try and get maybe some of that new evidence brought forward. How well does social media work in trying to do some of this?

GOULD: Social media works well in getting pictures and video in front of a fairly large number of people — if the people are interested in seeing it. And the irony here is that that technique works only occasionally, because you can't keep feeding new pictures all the time to the public before they start just not paying as close attention. And these things work when people are paying close attention. They look and say, "Oh, hey, that that looks like someone I know." In addition, they work only — this is going to sound like calling the sky blue — but they only work when there is video or when there is a picture. And that is the rare case in many of these circumstances.

GILGER: So I want to lastly talk a little bit about how often it is that cases like this get solved. Like, is it rare for a police department to have a cold case unit to have the resources to fund that and put some of its, as you say, better detectives within it? And how often do they, do they get anywhere?

GOULD: So it's not rare, but it does take a department that has the staffing to be able to do it and the resources to be able to do it. I have great admiration for the detectives in these units that, units, while at the same time feeling bad for them because they don't often close these cases. Those cases are in the unit for a reason. They're incredibly difficult to figure out what's going on because there isn't enough evidence. If there were, they would have solved the case by now. So you need something new to come up. You need the public to pay attention to it. You need something to be able to show people that they may know something or there needs to be some new evidence that comes to light. That doesn't happen very often.

GILGER: That is Jon Gould, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, joining us to talk about cold cases. Jon, thank you so much for coming on The Show.

GOULD: It was my pleasure.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.