Cold-case prof wins humanitarian award
By Adela Talbot, BA'08, MA'11
The murder stories Michael Arntfield’s students are unearthing aren’t something you’d ordinarily see on the evening news. That’s an injustice his Cold Case Society and Study Group is working to redress.
“In the United States, non-white (murder) victims have an 8-10 times lower clearance or solve rate than Caucasian victims. There are a few reasons for that – and I’m not suggesting just systemic racism – but the issue is no one is advocating for these people,” said Arntfield, BA'05, MA'07, PhD'11, an Arts & Humanities professor and former police officer, who is also author or co-author of more than a dozen criminology books.
Since 2010, he has worked with Western students to research unsolved historical homicides, some of them long-forgotten or never even publicly known.
The largest cluster of unsolved strangling cases in American history is in Atlanta, and not a single name of the 100 African-American victims appeared in a media report, he said. Last year, his students reached out to Atlanta’s police department and looked at original reports dating back to 1994 – aiming to name the victims, give them a face, a voice and a narrative. And that’s just one of many projects Arntfield’s Cold Case Society has tackled.
For such efforts towards justice, Arntfield has been named this year’s recipient of the Western Humanitarian Award.
Established in 2010, the award recognizes faculty, staff and students who are engaged in a range of efforts directed toward improving the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), it provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.
What began as an in-class start-up group, focused on research and innovation about unsolved historical homicides, grew quickly to an investigative group of eager students.
It is an interdisciplinary study group, not a club, he explained. It’s not a paid organization or a legal entity, but rather a group of students from various faculties who have an interest in mobilizing knowledge and helping respond to unsolved cases that emerge from communities, law enforcement, reporters and even family members who bring cases forward.
Over the past year, the group has partnered with a not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C. called the Murder Accountability Project, using newly developed state-of-the-art software that runs an algorithm able to detect previously overlooked patterns in cases dating back to 1965.
“We have uploaded almost 800,000 unsolved murders to that database and what happens is the computer identifies suspicious patterns, consolidates them all in one place for the first time ever, and then those get actioned out to my students. My students are now responding to, and corroborating, data hits,” said Arntfield, who sits on the Murder Accountability Project’s Board of Directors.
“My hope is to begin building a similar dataset for Canada. Data integrity is a major problem holding back data inquiry, and if we could build something like this in Canada, and essentially have a massive dragnet on the cases, that could be consolidated as open-source public safety information. That would change everything in terms of how these cases are reported on, and who is accountable. We would be publishing solved rates, not only by city, but by type of victim.”
The work done by the Cold Case Society has been featured in The New Yorker, Good Morning America, Bloomberg and A&E documentaries, among many other media outlets.
“I was surprised and humbled,” Arntfield said of being selected for the Western Humanitarian Award.
“People are more advocacy-minded today; there is a lot of good projects going on. I was impressed I was selected and think it’s the tangible nature of this work, and giving students purpose and responsibility, beyond just theorizing about what is happening,” he said.
“It gives them a purpose and aligns them with community stakeholders. As we continue to progress, it’s not only a breakthrough in terms of humanities-based computing, but it’s going to have real, substantive effects on policy. I’m proud to be affiliated with a university that recognizes the tangible nature of advocacy work, as opposed to wishing things into action. We’re actually rolling up our sleeves and doing work and I’m happy that Western recognizes that.”
Funds from the award will help student members of the Cold Case Society attend conferences and elicit wider academic interest in the group’s work, and to disseminate its results online, Arntfield added.
Established in 2010, the Western Humanitarian Award recognizes faculty, staff and students engaged in a range of efforts directed toward improving the quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. Funded by the Office of the Vice-President (Research), this award provides a maximum of $5,000 in support of humanitarian efforts as chosen by the recipient.