Friday, January 13, 2006

1/13/06 Lady in Blue

Gloria Coppola has had over 25 years of law enforcement experience. She truly cares about the missing and the people she serves. We could use more individuals like her serving. What follows is an interview with Gloria, wherein we try to tackle several of the most commonly asked questions from families of the missing. We also gain some understanding of what her work is like, which may aid us in working with our own LE agencies.

1) What is your background?

I started off as a police officer with the Niskayuna Police Department (Schenectady County) from 1980 until 1983. In 1983, I was hired by the New York State Police. Currently, I'm assigned to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) as an Investigator in Troop G’s Major Crimes Unit near Albany, NY. Prior to Major Crimes, I was a field investigator at the New Scotland barracks in southern Albany County; and previous to that I was assigned to the Forensic Investigative Center’s ViCAP Unit (Violent Criminal Analysis Program) which focuses on seeking patterns and similarities in homicides and sexual assaults in New York State, in addition to investigating and matching Missing Persons cases with Unidentified Deceased cases. Since I transferred from VICAP, I became the designated Troop G representative.

As a trooper, I was assigned uniform patrol, in addition to a two year undercover assignment in a street level narcotics unit. As far as education goes, I have an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY; a Bachelors Degree in Criminology/Sociology from the State University College at Plattsburgh in Plattsburgh, NY; and a Master’s Degree in Social Policy from Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, NY. I'm also a member of the Crisis Negotiators' Unit, in addition to being a polygraph examiner.

2) How did you get into law enforcement?

Growing up, I always thought I'd become a teacher. As high school graduation neared, I was looking into becoming an airline stewardess! I figured that I should get a couple years of college, so I looked into the curriculum of a nearby community college. The school had a good criminal justice program, and as I always had an interest in homicide since I was a kid, I enrolled in college. The rest is history.

3) What is your current position, and what are your duties?

In October 2003, I was transferred to the Major Crimes Unit at Troop G headquarters in Loudonville, NY. The unit is made up of five Investigators and two Senior Investigators. We respond to any police agency's request for assistance, mostly in homicide investigation. Our main duty is to coordinate the lead desk, and to assist with interviews. Our unit covers Troop G, which is made up of ten counties.

4) How did you meet Kelly Jolkowski, and what did you do for her that was above the call of duty?

I met Kelly at "Missing Persons' Day" in New York. This event is hosted by the "Center for HOPE" which the Lyall family started after their daughter Suzanne went missing on April 6, 1998. At their request, I've assisted as a presenter at Missing Persons Day for the last few years. Kelly was the keynote speaker at the 2005 Missing Persons' Day. We spoke briefly, however have kept in touch by email. We spoke about her son Jason's disappearance, and with her permission, I contacted the investigating agency, and shared some information and strategies.

5) What is a typical day like? How about a non-typical day?

There's no expectation of working a typical day versus working a non-typical day. A normal day for me is to arrive at work by 8AM. If our unit isn't involved in a current death investigation, we work individually on our assigned cold cases. Typically, we could be doing polygraphs on trooper applicants or criminal cases. We're on call 24-7.

6) What is a common stereotype in regards to someone in your field that you'd like to dismantle?

A common stereotype that I've observed over the years is that we, as law enforcement, are callous and don't care about the victims or their families. In reality, many of us put hours into these investigations, and identify too easily with the victim and/or their families. We know how important it is to remain as objective as possible to conduct a productive investigation.

7) What ideas do we get from television about law enforcement (LE) that are not accurate?

That we solve our cases within an hour. Unfortunately, it just doesn't happen that way.

That there's a 24 or 48 hour waiting period to report someone missing.

Also, that if a family member is focused on in a person's disappearance, it's because we have no other suspects. Sometimes the public doesn't realize that when a person goes missing, law enforcement have to start with the victim and move outward. For example: Did the victim runaway, or choose to "disappear"? Then the members of the victim's family, non-family members, and the possibility of stranger involvement would be pursued. Ideally, these elements should be looked at concurrently to save critical time.

I disagree with the "epidemic of stranger danger". Most abductors and abusers are known to the parent or child. Instead of the "don't talk to stranger" mentality, adults should focus on honing children's' skills for being safe, but not scared. Children should be taught to identify adults, even if they are strangers, who might be able to help them. Most missing children are runaways and children who have been abducted by a non-custodial parent. The number of abductions by strangers varies between 200 and 300 a year. The number of murders by strangers, remain about 50 a year.

8) Can you describe some of the various federal data base systems that would/could be used in a missing person's case? What should family members of a missing person know about these systems? When should they be utilized?

Ensure that the missing person has been entered into the national database of missing people called NCIC (National Crime Information Center) by law enforcement.

In 2000, the FBI Laboratory Division initiated the National Missing Person DNA Database for the identification of missing and unidentified persons. DNA profiles can be entered using biological relatives of the missing and unidentified human remains. When a sample is collected, it can be uploaded into the FBI's CODIS data base. This becomes even more important, if the person has been missing for an extended time. Police agencies can obtain the necessary information and consent forms through the FBI.

VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) is a nationwide data information center used by law enforcement designed to collect, collate, and analyze crimes of violence which include: solved or unsolved homicides, missing persons where the circumstances indicate a strong possibility of foul play and the victim is still missing, unidentified deceased persons, and sexual assault cases.

Also, in 2002, the National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA) in Phoenix, Arizona, was formally established. It acts as a national clearinghouse for missing adults that also offers programs, resources, and assistance to the families of missing adults, in addition to support for law enforcement in their searches for missing persons. Also, the DOE Network ( is a volunteer organization devoted to cold cases regarding disappearances and unidentified subjects from North America, Australia, and Europe. Membership includes Medical Examiners, Law Enforcement, private investigators, and everyday people.

9) Can you give any advise to family members if they are experiencing difficulties in communicating with law enforcement (lack of communication, perceived attitudes)?

Liaison with the victim's family is a crucial area of the investigation that is often neglected. It is directed toward assisting the emotional needs of the family members as they experience this devastating ordeal, and keeping channels of communication open. The family's assistance is needed to gain information about the victim, and for other investigative needs.

Sometimes during long terms investigations, the family will withdraw cooperation, becoming frustrated due to their perception of lack of progress. That's why it's so important for police to keep family appraised of certain aspects of the investigation, so that their cooperation will continue, and that rapport and trust will continue to build. Ask to have a detective assigned as a direct liaison to your family. Sometimes a police agency or district attorney's office can offer a crime victim specialist or other contact, who is not the lead investigator to offer updates or answer questions regarding police activities at their residence, the use of polygraph, preparation for various phone calls, necessity of resolving the issue of parents and family members as possible suspects, elements of the search, media attention, and possible reward offers.

10) Is it wrong to tell a family of a missing adult or a runway that nothing can be done, except to wait? How should a family respond if that is what is told to them? Shouldn't law enforcement at least personally interview all family members, friends, and acquaintances of the missing person? If they refuse, is there nothing more a family can do from an investigative standpoint, other than to hire a PI, which some cannot afford to do?

There are times when leads slow down. However, I think it's inaccurate to say that ALL you can do is wait, because law enforcement can always monitor daily police bulletins for similar cases, or perhaps potential matches. Plus telling them to "just wait," diminishes a family's hope. Although it's imperative to interview the family, friends, and acquaintances of the missing, in certain cases (such as repeat runaways and non-custodial abductions), you aren't always going to see it done (although it's a fact that the victims are at risk).

11) How can one balance protecting the case and the information/leads and satisfying the needs of the family to be informed?

I think if law enforcement can meet with the family to update them on any activity (or lack of), they won't feel "out of the loop". Unfortunately, police agencies are usually understaffed, and as a case becomes cold, their priorities gravitate towards their current cases.

12) How can you make a family in crisis understand that you cannot share all of the case details?

Law enforcement, while being sensitive to the emotional needs of family members, MUST be objective in assessing the situation for the possibility of foul play. In Michael Connell's article, "Investigator, Know Thyself," he states that any excessive influence of subjective feelings, prejudice, or interpretation can handicap an investigation.

13) When LE says they are working on specific leads and yet nothing ever gets done, what recourse does the family have?

Unfortunately, the police can run dozens, even hundreds or thousands of leads, without successfully closing a case. It doesn't mean that they aren't doing their job. I believe the family should generate reward posters, if possible, and keep the case in the media.

14) Are our expectations of LE too high in some cases?


15) If a shortage of manpower causes some of the lack of LE attention paid to these cases, how can we remedy that?

Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). They sometimes can assist law enforcement in filing missing person reports, verifying data concerning missing children that have been entered into the FBI's NCIC computer system, and sending publications to assist them in missing child cases. They interact with various state clearing houses and organizations, creating networks that can provide national and worldwide assistance to law enforcement and family members.

Contact "Project Alert" which was created by the NCMEC for law enforcement agencies who require on site assistance with missing children cases, consists of volunteers, consisting of retired law enforcement professionals who make themselves available at no cost. They'll assist with searches and media strategies.

My Note: For adult cases, contact the National Center for Missing Adults.

16) What might we come to understand about the frustrations experienced by LE that would help us to be more understanding of what they go through when working these cases?

It's frustrating because initially law enforcement wants to rule out family and acquaintances as possible suspects. Sometimes the family doesn't understand why the police are asking a lot of questions, ask for DNA, or a polygraph. It's important to help them clear you, so that they can go forward from there. Many people don't realize that very few children are abducted by complete strangers. The police are just doing their job. That is also why the list of family associates is so important.

17) Does LE become hardened because of their work to the emotions of the family of a missing person?

Hardened in a sense that they've seen the worst of the worst, however most will expect and understand the various emotions of the missing person's family. However, this does not mean that they will lose their objectiveness, which is needed to effectively conduct an investigation.

18) Tell about a case you worked on that was the most challenging and also difficult emotionally (preferably a missing person's case on this one and the one below). Tell about a case you worked on that had a happy ending.

Without going into specifics, I've helped to identify three unidentified persons (one living and two deceased). I felt satisfaction in knowing that it brought a sense of closure to both of their families, however I think that "closure" is not an entirely appropriate word because even in finally bringing home your loved one (and possibly arresting a responsible party), does not necessarily bring a family the peace and innocence that it had before their lives changed forever.

19) Is there any other advise you can give to families of the missing that we haven't covered?

Stay in touch with others going through similar circumstances. Not only can they provide information, they also can offer support, which is so important. Become knowledgeable about missing person organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in addition to the National Center for Missing Adults. Remember, knowledge is power.
Also, remember to use the media. Publicity is a key factor in locating missing people and providing law enforcement information on missing people.

20) Is there a message of hope you wish to convey to these families?

There's always hope in developing information on your missing loved ones. Cases have been closed after thirty years and forty years. Never give up hope.

Thank you, Gloria, for taking time out of your busy day to share this valuable information and srategies with us. May you be blessed abundantly.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.