Last summer, President Biden signed into law the Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act, which requires federal agencies to revisit cold case murder files and apply new technologies to aid in potential breakthroughs. U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) who co-sponsored the bill had this to say:
“This legislation will help ensure federal law enforcement reviews sometimes decades-old cold case files and applies the latest technologies and investigative standards…. This process will help bring grieving families resolution in the midst of tragic circumstances, and I am proud of the bipartisan support for this bill which is now law.”
The legislation was inspired by quadruple homicides that claimed the lives of four teenage girls in Austin, Texas over three decades ago and remain unsolved (the yogurt shop murders). The nonprofit Murder Accountability Project (MAP) was invited to participate in crafting the bill. MAP estimates there are more than 250,000 U.S. homicides since 1980 for which no one has been charged. The legislation was inspired by quadruple homicides that claimed the lives of four teenage girls in Austin, Texas over three decades ago and remain unsolved (the yogurt shop murders). The nonprofit Murder Accountability Project (MAP) was invited to participate in crafting the bill. MAP estimates there are more than 250,000 U.S. homicides since 1980 for which no one has been charged, noting that U.S. homicide clearance rates continue to decline (for more on that, read on).
The new law allows family members to request a fresh review by federal law enforcement personnel who were not involved in the original investigation. The bill directs federal law enforcement agencies “to review the case file” and to conduct “a full reinvestigation” if the review discovers “probative investigative leads.” The hope is that the new law will trickle down and be adopted by state and local law enforcement, empowering immediate family members to request a cold case review. Federal law enforcement agencies would be required to provide annual reports to Congress on what is working and not working with cold case reviews. You can review more information about the Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act on the MAP webpage and at Congress.gov (H.R. 3359)
Of course, the proof will be in the enforceability of the law. The road ahead is filled with possible traps: what if there’s a disagreement between families and law enforcement that a new, full investigation should be launched? What if law enforcement agencies fail to annually report to Congress? As the details appeared a little murky to me, I recently spoke to former police detective and criminologist (and MAP board member) Michael Arntfield about H.R. 3359 who said:
“It allows families of victims to seek relief through the courts, and force law enforcement to turn over (share) unsolved cases in their entirety to vetted third party agencies.”
If I’m reading it right, this could be a game-changer. In the past, groups like the Vidocq Society could step into cold case investigations only at the invitation of the host LE agency. Now it appeared like it will be at the victims’ families’ discretion to select an accredited agency of their choosing, but when I reached out to Vidocq, they had this to say:
“As of now, the bill will not influence how the society assists law enforcement with their cold cases. The bill specifically names federal law enforcement entities, not state/local law enforcement, which encompass the majority of agencies that solicit the Vidocq Society for assistance.”
I asked Arntfield to clarify, as it seemed funny to me that the law allows for greater oversight of federal investigative agencies, yet the vast majority of cold cases are handled at the state and local level (The FBI could claim only 6 murder investigations in 2020 in which they played a major part). He said this was true, and pointed to that hope of a trickle down to the majority of agencies responsible for unsolved murder investigations. It is true that this is how these things get started, but until a state follows the fed’s lead, H.R. 3359 won’t have a profound effect. For instance, the yogurt shop murder cases which inspired the law won’t have the ability to utilize H.R. 3359 as the investigating force was the Austin Police Department.
Also, it remains to be seen what will happen when an agency refuses to turn over documents. What then? Legal challenges could tie the matter up in the courts, the last thing a cold case has is time.
H.R. 3359 couldn’t come at a more timely moment as The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division estimates that homicide clearance rates in the United States have steadily declined from 90 percent in the mid-1960s to 62 percent in 2018. This is occurring at the same time as crime reporting by local police to the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to also dramatically decline, creating a perfect storm of case management confusion. According to the Murder Accountability Project, homicides increased in 2021 over the previous year, but the data suggests a decline in murders, because of the under-reporting.
The main driver here is the recent change in required reporting, with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) now becoming the tool of record. In the past, LE agencies reported their crime numbers using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report; a simple data entry tool, but it can be confusing to interpret the information. In the 1970s the law enforcement community saw the need for a more detailed reporting system and NIBRS was approved for use back in 1988. But it’s only recently that the FBI has begun to crack down and insist that it’s used.
Inputting NIBRS stats is much more detailed and time-consuming. NIBRS records case-level details for every homicide, robbery, assault, burglary, sexual assault, and other major crimes. About half of America’s police and sheriff’s departments have yet to become compliant with NIBRS reporting standards. Simply put, some agencies refuse to use NIBRS, continuing to only provide the UCR summary information, or, much worse, not reporting at all.
According to MAP, “Local law enforcement agencies reported only 14,715 homicides while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so far have counted 25,988 murders. This means police reported only 56.6 percent of the nation’s homicides in 2021, the worst reporting rate on record. “
If you visit MAP’s stats page, you can see the drastic differences in reporting sorted by State. California, Illinois, and New York are missing over 80% of their homicide cases. Florida did not report a single homicide in 2021 (the CDC reports that Florida had close to 1,500 murders). In North Carolina, where I live, there is a discrepancy of about 30 cases between the CDC and the FBI numbers, a reasonable 4% difference. At a recent City of Durham council meeting – where I work – I had the opportunity to ask the Durham police chief and her staff about NIBRS, and why so many agencies are reluctant to embrace it. She of course talked about the time-suck of putting in your numbers. Fortunately, Durham has a data analyst on staff who likes that sort of thing. She also noted that the State of North Carolina was much more proactive in providing training to LE, and allowed adequate time for agencies to ramp up to using the system. Other states may not have State Bureaus of Investigation that are so accommodating.
With all the non-compliance, legal action is already underway. Arntfield mentioned that MAP has a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Justice Department for “thousands of unreported murders.” MAP is also seeking to obtain more than 11,000 missing homicide records by contacting state and local law enforcement agencies, and “entreating them to report under the old UCR standards to MAP until they adopt the superior NIBRS standards. “ The Chairman of MAP, Thomas Hargrove had this to offer:
“We urge all law enforcement agencies to adopt the superior NIBRS standard for crime reporting. This is an investment in robust accounting in crime that will assist policy makers and local leaders to make wise decisions to assist law enforcement, We also urge state and local leaders to support our efforts to obtain crime data under the old reporting standards until all law enforcement becomes NIBRS compliant.”
You won’t find much if you go Googling for more information on NIBRS or the new law, H.R. 3359. Sadly these important issues have now become the dominion of bloggers and niche reporting. And if you’re a Canadian and wondering if we might find anything similar happening anytime soon north of the border, don’t hold your breath. Arntfield told me, “I don’t see that ever happening in Canada.”