911 tapes

Preserving Evidence in Cold Case Investigations

A 911 Tape is the ‘Holy Grail’ for Investigators

By: Joseph Giacalone

911 tapes are one of the most important elements of a cold case investigation. They often contain the names, phone numbers and other vital bits of information about the case and of your eye and ear witnesses. However, investigators have to treat this evidence as if they were on an archaeological dig.

When archaeologists are recovering artifacts from an ancient world they don’t do so with pick axes or sledge hammers. When they come across a skeleton or a piece of pottery they often use a paint brush or some other tool designed to mitigate damage. Investigators need to use the ‘same’ techniques when dealing with evidence from cold cases, especially an old cassette tape. That tape must be treated as if it is a relic from a bygone era where only one exists, because it probably is.

Cassette tapes were fragile when they were brand new. Can you imagine how fragile a 25 year old cassette tape could be? Depending on where the box was stored the tape may already be damaged. That is not the time for the investigator to put the cassette into the nearest tape machine they can find to see “what they have.” You’ll end up with a bird’s nest. For that reason, whenever an investigator finds a cassette tape in a cold case file, it should be immediately transported to a professional who is trained in the recovery of ‘old’ media with the latest equipment. You might only get one chance to get it done correctly, so don’t turn it over to the ‘resident’ expert – every police station has one.

The cassette tape should be made into a portable electronic file (MP3 file) that can be played on any computer or mobile device. The investigator should always prepare as if the case is going to trial, so they should have two copies made. One copy will stay with the case folder and the other will be used for investigative purposes. The same ‘Two Copy Theory’ should apply to recovered surveillance video as well. You should never leave yourself with only the original, too many things can go wrong. When you want witnesses or investigators to listen to or see what you have, never use the copy in the case folder. This will preserve that file for many years to come.