The Online Sleuths and the Cold Case
Mostly criminal justice has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in apprehending law breakers.
Three such private actors come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.
For centuries, members of these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber, private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally, in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information, following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.
Vigilantes are motivated by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice and dispense with due process.
A bounty-hunter, in contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.
Professional or licensed private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm unless they can see the cash up front.
Amateur digital sleuths who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice system.
Vigilantes, for the most part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock, never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing
Private citizens spend untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another motivator.
Laura Miller, who writes for Salon, reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014. The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the digital
Miller writes about The Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There is, in Miller’s words, “a methodological schism over how to interact with law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the ‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching officials or the bereaved.”
This is an interesting premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.
Miller’s review got me started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d) they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped the police.
A cup of coffee in hand, and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception, have put it in the unsolved file.
There are a number of sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites, you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort, sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong person was accused of involvement.
What do the professionals say about this development?
Professor David Wall of Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one of the online sleuthing communities.
Professor Wall is joined by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in London, England, who told CBC News, “During the Jack the Ripper case, one of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many leads.”
The British, through their Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit one handy.] There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be a defense.
Where there is a niches that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos where it is stored and analyzed.
Will the idea of police ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.
Meanwhile, there are online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.