A timeline toolkit for cold case investigations

Publication Date16 December 2019
Date16 December 2019
AuthorDavid Keatley,David D. Clarke
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology,Sociology,Sociology of crime & law,Deviant behaviour,Public policy & environmental management,Policing,Criminal justice
A timeline toolkit for cold case
David Keatley and David D. Clarke
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to outlinea variety of related methods forhelping with criminal
(cold) case investigations.Despite the best efforts of police investigations,many cases around the world
run out of leads and go cold. Whilemany police departments around the world have developedspecialist
groups and task forces, academics have also been developing new methods that can assist with
Design/methodology/approach Cold cases, by theirvery nature, typically comprise incompletedata
sets that many traditional statistical methods are not suited to. Groups of researchers have therefore
developed temporal, dynamicanalysis methods to offer new insights into criminal investigations.These
methodsare combined into a timeline toolkit andare outlined in the current paper.
Findings Methodsfrom the timeline toolkit have already been successfullyapplied to many cold cases,
turning themback into current cases. In this paper, tworeal-world cold cases are analysed withmethods
from thetimeline toolkit to provide examples of how thesemethods can be applied in further cold cases.
Originality/value Methods from the timeline toolkitprovide a novel approach to investigating current
and cold cases. This review provides academics and practitioners with a guide to begin using and
developingthese methods and forming successfulcollaborations with police departmentsand cold case
task forces.The methods are also suitable forwider groups and to use in their investigations.
Keywords Methods, Cold case, Investigations, Temporal analysis,Sequence analysis, Timeline toolkit
Paper type Case study
Every crime occurs across varying periods of time. One task facing investigators is to
determine the chain of events that occurred during the commission of a crime. Sometimes
this is relatively simple, based on forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony, other times it
may come down to judgement and heuristics. Despite the best efforts of investigators,
criminal cases may run out of leads or evidence to test, and go “cold”. Such cold cases
have gained widespread media interest in recent years, leading to the development of
specialised Cold Case Task Forces, which typically involve groups of specialists from
police detectives to forensic odontologists. These task forces review cases and consider
what new methods or technology may be used to assist withsolving or closing a cold case.
Alongside the advancements made inforensic sciences, academics in the social sciences,
such as psychology and criminology, have also developed new methods and processes
that can assist with police investigations and cold cases. However, from the outset it should
be made clear: these methods do not solve cases. They are provided as a means for
academics to understand how temporal methods can be applied to cold cases, as well as
for detectives to approach their cases from a new angle. The timeline toolkit does not
provide a “magic bullet” to solving cases, but it can be used to bridge the gap between
academics in criminology andpsychology, and detectives.
Traditional approaches to research in disciplines such as psychology have focussed on
individual risk factors that are “tested” in statistical approaches such as (hierarchical)
David Keatley is based at
Researchers in Behaviour
Sequence Analysis
(ReBSA), Nottingham, UK
and School of Law,
Murdoch University, Perth,
David D. Clarke is based at
the Researchers in
Behaviour Sequence
Analysis (ReBSA) and
School of Psychology,
University of Nottingham,
Nottingham, UK.
Received 16 September 2019
Revised 8 November 2019
Accepted 13 November 2019
DOI 10.1108/JCP-09-2019-0039 VOL. 10 NO. 2 2020, pp. 47-63, ©Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829 jJOURNAL OF CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY jPAGE 47
regression models or multilevel modelling, for example, in forensic psychology, research
into attitudes and perceptions are commonly conducted. While this provides some
interesting information on the cognitions of students (used as a proxy for offenders), it has
limited applied value. Furthermore,the statistics underpinning such studies (e.g. regression
analyses) posit a number of predictor variables on a single outcome behaviour[1].
Therefore, groups of researchers have turned to novel approaches to understand criminal
behaviours (Keatley, 2018;Taylor et al.,2008) as well as investigating cold cases or crime
scene behaviours (Ferguson, 2015, 2019). The focus of this paper is to outline a series of
methods that academics have been using in the area of forensics and criminology,
collectively termed the Timeline Toolkit, as they share a commonality in focussing on
temporal episodes of behaviours. Each method will be listed and explained in this paper.
Finally, two real-world cold cases will be investigated through two of the “tools” in the
timeline toolkit, crime script analysis (CSA; Cornish, 1994; Leclerc and Wortley, 2013) and
Behaviour Sequence Analysis (BSA; Clarke and Crossland, 1985;Ivanouw, 2007;Keatley,
2018), to show investigators how such approaches may assist with their investigations. The
aim is to bridge the gap between cold case detectives and academics.
Data collected in most controlled, laboratory studies in academia are typically complete
and relatively well-structured. Whilethe researcher may not know the outcome of the study,
they likely know what the data will look like, and missing data are purposefully kept to a
minimum. This makes for clearer data from which results can be seen and conclusions
drawn; however, such methods are less useful in real-world contexts and cases, wherein
the data or evidence are typically unstructured, competing, missing and/or chaotic. Many
cold cases have significant gaps in knowledge or evidence, and attempting to run
conventional statistical techniques would not only be unwise, but in many cases would not
even be possible. While many detectives are open to any additional input and advice
available for their cold cases, they are under intense pressure to solve their cases in a way
that is defensible in court. Many cases that have gone cold lack the forensic evidence
necessary to solve them. It is at this stage, in particular, that methods from the timeline
toolkit can be of most use: providing fresh insight or novel understanding. It should
be made clear, however, that while the methods have proven useful in a number of cold
cases already, they are not a magical remedy to fix or solve all cases. Sound detective work
and expertise is, and will always be,central to solving crimes. The timeline toolkit, however,
offers several methods thatcan help investigations along the way.
Timeline Toolkit
Everything we do happens over the course of episodes in time. These episodes may span
from a few seconds to many years, but the process for analysing them remains similar.
Timelines are like maps, in the same way that a map can be zoomed-in on for street-level
detail, or zoomed-out of to global scales, maps and directions still follow the same
principles. Within temporal analyses, there are a number of techniques for analysing the
progression of behaviours and events across time. For investigative purposes, this allows
academics to analyse either life histories of potential suspects or victims (Keatley, Golightly,
Shephard, Yaksic and Reid, 2018), or crime-scene-specific behaviours (Fossi et al.,2005;
Keatley et al.,2017;Lawrence et al., 2010). The scale may change, but the directions or
methods remain the same.
Recently, a group of academics have formed an international network of specialists in
methods for temporal analyses: Researchers in Behaviour Sequence Analysis (ReBSA;
www.ReBSA.co.uk). The “timeline toolkit” refers to a number of methods for temporal
analyses that members of ReBSA have either developed or used. Across most of the
methods used in the timeline toolkit, the underlying principle is to analyse the progressionof
behaviours or events. To do this, an episode first needs to be broken down, or parsed, into
discrete parts. These parts may refer to behaviours (e.g. stabs victim, moves body), or

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