A new criminal justice class offered in 2016-17 was a real mystery for a select group of students. But a mystery is exactly what the 12 criminal justice majors wanted when they enrolled in the cold case course that spent the year reinvestigating decades-old Calhoun County cases that remain open.
A partnership between the Calhoun County Prosecutor, the Battle Creek Police Department (BCPD) and Olivet began last year, allowing students to work alongside experienced detectives and other law enforcement officials, including Police Chief Jim Blocker, to examine evidence, recommend interviews with witnesses, and uncover potential new leads, ultimately working to solve unsolvable cases.
For students, the cold case course was an opportunity to dive into a real-world working environment, develop and test new skills hands-on, network with established professionals, and overall gain valuable experience that will benefit them as they complete their studies and begin their careers. For the prosecutor’s officer and police department, the students opened new doors with alternative perspectives, resulting in endless possibilities. And also, for the families who of victims of these crimes, new hope was given .
“We need more young people to get into police work,” said Chief Blocker. “Minds who are critical thinkers and thoughtful. This opportunity does just that. There is nothing more beneficial in a learning environment than when students can be hands-on with a case and recognize the impact it has had.”
The class began at the start of Olivet’s fall semester and continued through the spring semester for the 12 students enrolled. Each of Olivet’s three, full-time criminal justice faculty members led a group of four students on a different cold case from Calhoun County. Regina Armstrong, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Criminal Justice Program, Mike Sherzer, assistant professor of criminal justice, and Phil Reed, associate professor of criminal justice, have decades of combined experience in the criminal justice field.
“The cold case course is invaluable to the learning of students,” said Professor Armstrong. “It exposes them to police reports, crime scene photos, ‘real’ evidence and the opportunity to watch interviews with persons of interest. This class prepares them to work in the law enforcement field in the future. In addition, it places a realistic perspective on the criminal justice field. Working on cases is very difficult and you do not solve them in 60 minutes like is portrayed on TV.”
Professor Reed has been at Olivet College since retiring as commander from the BCPD in 2003. During his time with the department, he was responsible for developing the department’s cold case team in 2001. He conceived the idea for a cold case course at Olivet College after recognizing the benefits it would bring to the agencies and students, and the possibility of closure for the families of victims.
Students must apply for the course by submitting a letter of interest and professional resume. Once selected, they also signed a confidentiality agreement, to protect both themselves and others involved with the case. After that, the real work started. To begin, students had to familiarize themselves with the cases.
Due to confidentiality, students are not able to talk in detail about the cases they worked on this year.
“Our group has a five-inch thick, three-ring binder full of papers involving the case and we’ve read every single one those papers at least once,” said junior Isabelle Leon who was in the group led by Professor Armstrong. “Some we’ve gone through multiple times in order to dig a little deeper into what was said.”
The class schedule was also far from ordinary. Groups met at a designated starting time, but the meeting did not have an ending time. Students would come prepared with theories to discuss and kept weekly journals tracking their progress. Sometimes meetings would last literally all night.
“It took my group at least the whole first month of classes to truly get settled,” said junior Larissa Ludwig, also a member of Professor Armstrong’s group. “There was so much to read and organize, and we also had to learn about each other, the way we all thought and could collaborate. After the transition period, we really made some accomplishments.”
New technology has been developed since many cases went cold. The students were encouraged to review evidence held by the police department and determined one specific piece should be reexamined. Larissa and Isabelle came to realize that it’s not quite like what’s seen on TV and evidence doesn’t come back over night. The group is still waiting for the results to come back, but are crossing their fingers for some answers this summer.
In addition, students watched recorded interviews from the initial investigations. Larissa, who is minoring in psychology to further her skills in behavioral analysis, said, “That was so interesting and beneficial to me. I watched the videos and made some guesses about why the suspect was acting the way they were. Then, I was able to review the polygraph and see if my predictions matched. My biggest takeaway was recognizing the difference between a person’s actions when they are guilty versus when they are just nervous.”
Students in Professor Reed’s case, involving a missing person, conducted a search near the location the suspect was last seen. They reviewed previous failed search areas and determined a new area to expand the search. This group of students even experienced working with the media and practiced ethical interviewing skills, having attracted the attention of the local media.
Overall, the students in the course were surprised how in-depth examining a case could be. From the amount of evidence to sift through, to the necessary guidelines that must be followed in order to present evidence in court, bringing a criminal to justice is always a challenge, but that’s what these students are passionate about.
“This was a great opportunity for these students,” said Professor Reed. “The end result seems to be just as highly perceived as it was hoped to be. We’re looking forward to future possibilities and really seeing the result this experience had on students as they enter their careers with a leg up.”
The cold case course will be offered again in the 2017-18 academic year. Some cases investigated this year will be remain open and under investigation, while new cases may also be introduced.