Before my retirement in 1994 I spent 20 years in law enforcement and investigations. As you might guess, I was and still am very much pro law enforcement.
Soon after retiring I began writing fiction and true crime books, and a few years ago created the Crime Wire Internet radio show with Susan Murphy Milano. We dealt with topics that included missing persons, domestic violence and unsolved murders. The show went on hiatus after Susan passed, but is now back and in full swing. It has been while doing Crime Wire that I really started looking at unsolved murders from the standpoint of the victim’s survivors, and there are a few things that I find bothersome. I’ll talk about two of them here.
One is the lack of options available to the survivors if they find reason to believe the police investigation was lacking in some respect; and the handling agency won’t address the situation in a manner satisfactory to the survivor. What can be done?
Many people think they can simply take their concerns to another agency with jurisdiction and that agency will take over the investigation. For example, the county sheriff can intervene over a town or village department, and a state agency can replace the sheriff. In reality, however, the odds of that happening are slim to none. The agency you are looking to for help won’t get involved unless there is evidence of malfeasance in the initial investigation, or the handling agency or the district attorney “invites” them in. The request of the survivor by itself is not sufficient.
The second thing, which is my main peeve, is the difficulty in obtaining police records and reports and/or coroner reports and photos. My comments will be general in nature because every jurisdiction has its own rules and regulations that will vary from place to place.
There are many perfectly valid reasons for the police not to release information that could compromise an active investigation. I have no issue with withholding information to protect the integrity of the investigation.
I do have concerns, though, when talking about cold cases that have been inactive for many years or decades. In all too many of the cases I’ve heard of, the police agency refuses to release any information, citing the open case exemption to complying with the FOIA or Sunshine Laws in the specific state.
Suppose the survivor has the resources to hire a private investigator to pursue the 30-year-old murder case the police haven’t updated her on in ten years. She’d like to see what the police have done to perhaps give her investigator some ideas or save him a few steps. I submit that the reports could be released, even if partially redacted. Or at a minimum, a synopsis of the case could be made available.
How about the survivor who bumps into some friends of her husband who was murdered eight years ago? These friends were the last known people to have seen her husband alive. They ask her how the investigation is coming and wonder why the police never interviewed them. Concerned about the quality and depth of the investigation she wants to look at the records to see what was actually done. “Sorry Ma’am, it’s an open case and we’re prohibited from allowing you access to the file.”
In this example the open case status can be used to conceal sloppy police work under the guise of protecting the integrity of the investigation. Because only the police can see the file, how will the survivor ever know if the investigation was a sincere effort to find the truth? Where is the transparency?
I believe there needs to be a mechanism for survivors to have access to open-case police files under certain circumstances. Such as: the case has been inactive for a specific number of years or there is credible reason to believe the initial investigation was incompetently conducted or corrupt.
Getting changes made will be a very tough uphill battle and will require the support of as many groups and individuals who are interested in helping survivors as possible. Still, it would be a worthwhile fight.