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Cold Cases: UWF Professor Learns From Cold Cases

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In our final Cold Case installment we meet Richard Hough – a criminal justice professor at the University of West Florida – who in 2007 began teaching a course on how to deal with such investigations.

Before turning to academics, Hough was a cop and a sheriff’s deputy. He says cases would go cold – although that term usually wasn’t used – for myriad reasons. When the leads ran out, he says something different had to be done.

“I got involved in a couple of those cases within a few years of being a police officer,” Hough said. “That really did form a lot of my early thoughts about doing this course and creating it at the University of West Florida to teach people about ‘What are the dynamics, what are those things that we actually can do something about for cases that seemed to have just dropped off the map?’”

Investigating cold cases, says Hough, is a challenge unto itself which can easily lead to frustration. Picking the right people to form such a unit is key, and part of the persistence is when investigators start “warming up” the case.

Students come to some Criminal Justice courses – about serial killers and homicides among others -- with tremendous interest in the process. Hough says that’s fueled in some part by what they see from Hollywood – where cases are neatly wrapped up in an hour or two.

Hough calls what we see on TV and in the movies about criminal cases a “carnival mirror full of distortion and disproportion.” But he adds that when the students land in his class, they are receptive.

“What I’ve put together is something that starts right at the beginning of why do we need, or start, a cold case unit,” said Hough. “How do we organize a cold case unit, and then managing the case itself – how do you select cold cases, what are the steps you take to warm those back up and go through the process again?”

The course also draws from other law enforcement courses, such as the basic techniques taught in Criminal Investigations, Homicide and others. Hough calls those the “jumping off point” and the absolute foundation for the Cold Case Investigation course.

“And of course a lot of [students] – very sincerely – say ‘Well, I don’t want to do any of that police work stuff, I just want to jump into being a homicide detective or cold case,’” said Hough. “Not realizing that you have to learn those other skill sets first, or you can approach an advanced investigation such as cold case.”

The course also touches on law enforcement’s relationship with the families of cold case victims. Hough concedes that re-opening a case likely is not uplifting, happy news for them. But he adds that they can be instrumental in bringing about a resolution.

“Time sometimes allows people to either remember things, or to feel comfortable with coming forward and speaking,” Hough said. “Victims’ family members are very helpful, [but] they don’t always know what to do to help with the process. And that’s one of the reasons we have educational outreach to help them work through that.

UWF’s Criminal Justice Department also enjoys partnerships with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and Pensacola Police Department. That includes using some of Hough’s advanced Criminal Justice students this semester, to work on cold cases at ECSO.

More information on the Cold Case courses at the University of West Florida can be found at www.uwf.edu.