Within the study of criminology, criminals are considered serial killers when they offend in a repetitious pattern by committing three or more murders over three or more separate criminal episodes (Siegel, 2009). By comparison, criminals are considered mass murderers when they, as individuals or as a small group of a few offenders, commit four or more murders within a single criminal episode (Siegel, 2009). After review of three separate web sites that chronicle the lives of and present the biographies of many known criminal offenders who meet the criteria to be labeled as serial killers (All Serial Killers, 2011; Serial Killers, 2011; Serial Killers and Mass Murderers, 2011), this research paper shall set out to answer several questions regarding the profiling, identification and investigation of serial killers with attention focused on issues pertaining to public policy and personal privacy.
When comparing the biographies and profiles of a number of known and researched serial killers a number of commonalities among childhood behavior and influences can be readily found. A factor based in the social learning theory commonly found among serial offenders is a history of childhood abuse at the hands of aggressive and/or violent parents and/or other role models. In many cases the lack of proper behavior modeling combined with improper behavior modeling creates a scenario where a child can grow into an adult who has an impaired ability to recognize improper interpersonal behavior, specifically where violence and abuse is concerned (Ottawa University, 2011). Many experts believe that childhood history of bizarre behavior, specifically animal cruelty but also including torture and abuse of childhood peers, are also strong indicators or future potential for more severe functions among criteria for antisocial personality disorder, sometimes known as psychopathy (Siegel, 2009; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The criteria for antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults; reckless disregard for safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations; lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another; being at least age 18 years; and having evidence of conduct disorder with onset before at 15 years” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, pp. 706). Antisocial personality disorder in adults is typically preceded by conduct disorder and/or oppositional-defiant disorder during childhood (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The criteria for conduct disorder include “aggression to people and animals [including bullying, fighting, weapons, cruelty and/or sexual activity]; destruction of property [including deliberate destruction of others’ property by or other than by fire]; deceitfulness or theft [including burglary, theft without confrontation and lying]; and serious violations of rules [including runaway and truancy] all of which cause clinically significant impairment in social, academic or occupational functioning” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, pp. 98-99). While these commonalities can be used to predict future serial killers, Siegel (2009) notes that while a number of identifiers are suspected, “[the] cause of serial murder eludes criminologists” (pp. 300).
While many, if not the vast majority, of individuals who ultimately become serial killers are exposed to a particular pattern of childhood experiences and upbringing, it would be non sequitur to argue that everyone who is exposed to that particular pattern of childhood experiences is destined to become a serial killer. Other factors such as certain personal traits and human instinct, or lack of either or both, must be considered, are readily easy to identify forensically after the fact but are notably difficult to predict or identify without correlating evidence in behaviors. As our Constitution guarantees that individuals are innocent of criminal activity until proven by sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt as guilty, it would be difficult to identify and label somebody as a “serial killer” or “future serial killer” without sufficient evidence of past acts of criminal activity sufficient to meet the aforementioned criminological definition of a serial killer.
Were one to assume that these behaviors, diagnostic criteria and childhood experiences were sufficient and accurate predictors to identify and label future serial killers, a number of legally and ethically dangerous steps would have to be taken to discover and interdict these would-be offenders before they could offend as serial killers. Monitoring of medical records, including psychiatric and psychological records, would be necessary to identify children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder and conduct disorder with onsets prior to age 15 years as is required for the later adult diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Such monitoring, however, would violate the privacy of individually identifiable health information as protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) Privacy and Security Rules (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). Surveillance inside homes may be required to identify associated risk factors and presence of child abuse, particularly childhood sexual abuse; however, such surveillance and monitoring would arguably violate the security in their homes and probable cause requirement clauses of the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. the level of monitoring and surveillance of individual citizens to monitor for, identify and interdict potential future serial killers would be overly burdensome regarding resources on the public sector while overly intrusive into the privacy of the private sector.
Recommendation and Conclusion
While the law enforcement profession may not be able to identify and interdict potential serial killers before they begin to offend through violent acts, measures can be taken to create a sort of early warning system for patterns of criminal behavior that may become, if they are not already so, the criteria for being labeled as the conduct of a serial killer by criminologists. Just as technology and information sharing has helped law enforcement become more proactive as opposed to reactive to terrorism the same methods can be applied to identifying and apprehending serial killers. Law enforcement investigators, particularly those who investigate animal cruelty, sexual offenses and homicides, could share among each other de-identified or identified information regarding modus operandi and victimology factors of violent offenses into regional, state and/or national information digital warehouses. Once such a database is developed and information is being submitted routinely, algorithms designed by criminologists and psychologists could be utilized to search for potential patterns among the information submitted from various agencies and investigators. The algorithm could then flag multiple cases that fit a pattern as defined in the algorithm for review by a criminologist and/or psychologist to determine if the cases need further comparison, review or collaboration among the related criminal investigators. Such a widespread system would likely require federal resources and support to get off the ground, federal resources for criminologists and psychologists, and significant support from state and local agencies in supplying the information crucial for the system to operate. To maintain operational security and access only to authorized criminal justices agencies the system could be restricted to access via the National Law Enforcement Tracking System (NLETS) that is currently used to track serialized or otherwise identifiable stolen articles and other information considered law enforcement sensitive. The benefits of such a system in early identification of serial offender behavior to prevent further offenses could ultimately outweigh the opportunity cost of not having such a system in place.
All Serial Killers (n.d.). Retrieved on April 30, 2011, from http://www.allserialkillers.com.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.). Health Information Privacy. Retrieved on April 30, 2011, from http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/.
Ottawa University. (n.d.). PLS-30300 Weekly Materials, Week 8: Violent Crime. Retrieved on April 30, 2011, from http://ottawa.blackboard.com/.
Serial Killers. (n.d.). Retrieved on April 30, 2011, from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/.
Serial Killers and Mass Murderers. (n.d.). Retrieved on April 30, 2011, from http://crime.about.com/od/serial/Serial_Killers_and_Mass_Murderers.htm.
Siegel, L. (2009). Criminology, Tenth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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