Police were all too human in Misty hunt
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Real-world police work isn’t “CSI,” “The Closer” or Detective Harry Bosch. It’s not even the reality-based “Cold Case Files” most of the time.
But it could have been a lot better than the Puyallup police investigation that followed the disappearance of 14-year-old Misty Copsey during the Puyallup Fair in 1992.
Over the past week, in an online series summarized in today’s newspaper, The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson has documented the twists, turns and outright blunders of that investigation.
The mistakes may not have made any difference to Misty: She was almost certainly murdered, perhaps shortly after her disappearance. The investigation itself is now ancient history, for the most part, and the Puyallup police have since overhauled their “missing person” procedures.
But Robinson’s account does make for a cautionary tale on how not to respond to a child’s likely abduction. Whatever happened to Misty, it’s all too possible the lapses let a homicidal criminal remain at large.
Even now, the Puyallup Police Department seems ambivalent about whether to classify Misty as a crime victim or runaway. The runaway theory took hold immediately after she vanished, and Puyallup investigators clung to it after detectives in neighboring jurisdictions began to suspect foul play. As a result, potentially important leads were not pursued and some fundamental criminal procedures not followed.
A few oversights were spectacular. One suspect’s car was never subjected to forensics tests; when police finally got around to it, the vehicle had already been crushed at a wrecking yard. The King County Sheriff’s Office lost paint chips recovered from a pair of jeans Misty is believed to have worn the night of her disappearance. After learning two years ago that DNA testing was possible, the Puyallup police didn’t ask for a genetic analysis of hairs found in those jeans. To this day, they still haven’t.
It appears that personality factors played too great a role in this investigation. Police showed a tendency to discount Misty’s mother because of her drinking and other personal problems. They appear to have indulged in backlash against an amateur who insinuated himself into the case and pestered them with demands and accusations – but who also clung to the trail of evidence like a pit bull. While it’s human to resent unreasonable people, professionals can’t let annoyance get in the way of the job.
To some extent, mistakes are built into detective work. Contrary to Hollywood, investigators rarely have enough time and funding to pursue every angle of a suspected crime. But too many of the mistakes in Misty’s case resulted from bad judgment, not lack of resources. The Puyallup police say they’re still looking for evidence. A suggestion: Ask the lab to test those hairs for DNA.