How to Become a Cold-Case Detective

Cold case file stamped "solved" in red

According to the National Institute of Justice, on any given day there are as many as 100,000 actively missing person cases in the United States, with tens of thousands of those individuals disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Where do people turn when law enforcement is unable to provide them with answers regarding their missing loved ones?

Cold cases are mostly defined as criminal investigations in which all known leads have been investigated and the case comes to a standstill or a dead end due to inconclusive forensic evidence or any witnesses that may make the case redundant leading to nowhere.

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Detectives and crime victims tend to experience deep frustration and disappointment while the trial of a crime goes cold because then the evidence will be re-examined again and again till a new lead comes up which then determines if any further scientific analysis is necessary.

There are a few ways that a cold case can get reactivated, but in general, these cases that may go through the reactivation phase may involve the revelation of some new fact that compels further investigation. In some instances, police departments have an investigator that is assigned to review cold cases and find enough evidence to revamp the case.

According to 2016 data that was collected by the OJP’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. has about 18,000 law enforcement agencies; but, according to NIJ-sponsored research, it is reported that only 7% have dedicated cold case units.

“Cold cases constitute a crisis situation, for all unsolved homicides potentially have offenders who have never been apprehended,” stated McAndrew who has served as one of 36 experts that have worked with the Cold Case Investigation Working Group as convened by the Office National Institute of Justice. 

According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, it has been reported that around 185,000 cases of homicide and non-negligent manslaughter went unsolved from 1980 to 2019.

The working group consists of experts in a wide range of aspects of cold-case investigations by developing recommendations for law enforcement which has been published as National Best Practices for Implementing and Sustaining a Cold Case Investigation Unit that imparts the best practices for investigating cold cases.

In even rarer circumstances, agencies usually have an entire squad or unit dedicated to cold files. In these instances, the investigators may initiate periodic reviews of cases to see if anything may have been overlooked or if any new information might be available. If so, they’ll pursue those new leads and see where they take them in hopes of bringing some resolution.

Missing Person Investigator Jobs

Missing person investigators are hired by loved ones when mysteries need to be solved and loved ones need to be found. Unlike law enforcement officials, who must operate under a strict set of laws regarding searching for missing persons (many of which are quite narrow), missing person investigators may take on any type of missing person case, even those that are deemed cold cases by law enforcement or are not considering missing person cases at all.

This is because the term “missing persons” is a broad one that can be defined in a number of ways. Missing persons may be cold cases; they may not be legally classified as missing persons, or they may be active missing person cases. As such, missing person investigators may help locate missing persons in any number of circumstances:

  • They may work alongside law enforcement officials in active missing person cases, augmenting a current missing persons search or pursuing leads not considered credible by law enforcement.
  • They may open a missing person case and actively begin searching before law enforcement considers it a missing person’s case.
  • They may help families reconnect with separated loved ones.
  • They may work with families to readdress cold missing person cases that have been closed by law enforcement.
  • They may help families seek additional answers on the missing person’s cases of loved ones.
  • They may help families find a missing loved one that is not considered “missing” in the eyes of the law.
  • They may help find missing debtors, heirs, or witnesses.

Between 2018 and 2028, the career is expected to grow 8% and produce 2,600 job opportunities across the U.S.

Because of the many circumstances under which someone may be considered missing, missing person investigators must be well-equipped to handle any number of circumstances and must be prepared to deal with emotionally charged situations and grief-stricken clients. However, this profession can be incredibly gratifying and exhilarating, as well, thereby attracting a number of private investigators to specialize in missing persons.

In short, missing person investigators are the professionals called in when families and other loved ones want to find the truth about their missing loved ones, relatives, business associates, etc., regardless of the circumstances.

Missing person investigators use a wide array of resources to find missing persons. They may pay informants, search the Internet and public databases, study police records regarding the case, and pursue leads wherever they make them. They may question witnesses, perform background checks, and use a number of investigative techniques, including surveillance, to locate the whereabouts of missing persons.

Many individuals turn to the services of missing-person investigators because of their skills, their resources, and their dedication.

Becoming a Missing Persons Investigator

Those individuals who are interested in becoming missing person investigators must have excellent oral and written communication skills, top-notch analytical and critical thinking skills, and an eye for detail. However, they must also possess a formal education to best serve their clients. Formal education in criminal justice or a related field through an associate, bachelor, or master’s degree program, is a practical path to becoming a private investigator.

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These programs often allow students to specialize their studies in a specific area, and the coursework prepares these individuals to conduct surveillance, interview witnesses, utilize technology, and ensure they are abiding by all laws as they conduct their investigations.

Just a few of the degree options available for private investigators include:

  • Associate of Arts in Criminal Justice
  • Associates of Science in Legal Studies
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration – Human Services
  • Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice

The core curriculum of a degree program in criminal justice provides individuals with a foundation in ethics, the criminal justice system, and criminal law, while state licensure prepares individuals by assessing their knowledge (usually through a written exam) of the practice of private investigation in the state in which they will work.

Missing person investigators must be licensed to practice in most states, and state requirements often include both education and experience. As such, an undergraduate or graduate program in criminal justice prepares individuals for state licensure and for working in the field of private investigation.

Many states require a background check, fingerprinting, and supervised experience as a condition of licensure, and it is also common for states to require continuing education as a condition of license renewal.

Salary of Missing Persons Investigator

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that the demand for the jobs of private detectives and investigators was projected to increase 13% between the duration of 2020-2030.

*May 2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics Salary and Job Market Figures for Private Detectives and Investigators reflect state data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.


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