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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Prisoners solve cold cases

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Police services in the US and Netherlands distribute cold case playing cards and calendars to get prisoners' help in solving cold cases.

New Tricks

Cold Case, New Tricks, Waking the Dead  — TV shows about cold cases have always been popular.

Often episodes feature police officers visiting prisons trying to persuade prisoners to provide information about old crimes.

In the USA and the Netherlands, police have adopted a more proactive approach.

Playing cards

For the last decade or so, police forces in several US states have been creating special decks of Cold Case playing cards. Here’s Indiana’s Department of Corrections latest edition with their official description:

This deck profiles 52 unsolved homicides and missing persons. There are hundreds of other cases that are not profiled here. You might know something about these cases or you might have some information on cases not in this deck. You may think the information you have is not important or would not be helpful to the investigation. However, that information just might be the missing link that family members have been waiting years for that can solve their loved one’s case and bring closure to their family. The victims depicted in this deck are someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, wife, husband, or child.

The playing cards are distributed to all the state’s penal establishments.

The US state of Connecticut has done the same with nine serious crimes being solved  and over 600 tips being received in the first six years of the scheme.

Calendars

Dutch police have recently adopted this approach (thanks to Daniel Boffey for his article in the Guardian which tipped me off to this approach) and have developed cold case calendars featuring unsolved murders or disappearances which are to be handed to all 30,000 prisoners in the country after a trial run in five jails in the north resulted in 160 tips to the police.

Each week of the year in the brightly coloured 2018-19 calendars will be illustrated with a photograph of a missing person and details of the case. The hope is that many of those in jail will know details of some of the crimes or may have heard other criminals chatting about them.

Following the pilot , the police received tipoffs on several cases, including that of Nicky Verstappen, an 11-year-old boy who was murdered while at a summer camp near Brunssum in the south of the Netherlands in August 1998. Nobody has ever been convicted, but the police have now reopened the case.

Jeroen Hammer, the calendar’s inventor, told Dutch newspapers the calendars had also proved popular with bored prisoners, although some had regarded the initiative as an attempt to turn them against their own.

Of course there are people who don’t want a calendar and who don’t want to be seen as a snitch. But our trial shows that almost two-thirds of prisoners think the calendar is a good idea.

Two other cases on the calendar have also been reopened following tipoffs this year from inmates in five different prisons. The calendar has been printed in Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, English and Russian to maximise its impact, and a €800,000 reward is being made available for those whose information ends in a successful conviction.

Announcing the national rollout of the calendar, a police spokesman said (in an enchanting example of police under-statement):

The experience of the police and judiciary shows that prisoners have relatively high levels of knowledge about committed crimes.

The Dutch police have adopted this approach in part because advances in forensic technology have made acting on tipoffs even in very old cases significantly easier.

Importantly, the police say they can offer anonymity to people in certain cases since in Dutch law there is no penalty for keeping information about a criminal offence committed. Prisoners therefore, do not have to fear prosecution if they provide information about an offence even many years after the event.

You can see the official police youtube promoting the initiative below:

I wonder if any English or Welsh police service will consider making a bid to the Home Office Police Innovation Fund for a similar initiative…?

 

All innovation posts are kindly sponsored by Socrates 360 which provides a complete solution for staff, prisoners, probationers, etc. combining engaging content, simple set-up and an easy tracking system. Socrates 360 has no influence over editorial content.

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One Response

  1. Question:
    “I wonder if any English or Welsh police service will consider making a bid to the Home Office Police Innovation Fund for a similar initiative…?”
    Answer:
    Prisoners will, obviously, not participate in this initiative if there is a chance of being prosecuted for holding information that otherwise should have been disclosed. The UK should change their law to be in line with the Dutch example given here. This is an example of the UK, yet again, being far too punitive creating offences were they result in someone (an already terribly discriminated against prisoner/offender) being criminalised, yet again, for simply wanting to help the Justice System (i.e. the police ad prosecution, etc) obtain a conviction.

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