Detecting Hidden Serial Killers

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Interesting Reading 

A recent article in The New Yorker,  “The Serial Killer Detector,” has given rise to a veritable barrage of scare-headlines across social media  (“More Than 2000 Serial Killers At Large! In The United States!!”)

The article by Alec Wilkinson describes how a former journalist, Thomas Hargrove, developed a data analytics tool to identify previously undetected serial killers. Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has catalogued a total of 751,785 murders since 1976 — a number that far exceeds the official tally reported by the FBI (The discrepancy between MAP and the FBI’s totals reflects the fact that many states fail to report their murder tallies accurately to the Feds. Hargrove has taken states to court to reveal those unreported numbers.)

Hargrove’s MAP tool uses an algorithm he wrote to detect patterns in unsolved murder reports within a geographical area. A high rate of unsolved murders is one indicator that a serial killer may be at large (In 2010, Hargrove spotted a pattern that suggested that a serial killer might be responsible for a series of unsolved murders in a Midwest city. Local officials brushed off Hargrove’s attempts to alert them to the potential threat; years later, a man arrested on another murder volunteered a confession that he had committed many of the earlier killings.)

Hargrove says he is still debating how and when to reach out to local police departments when MAP detects a possible serial killer within a vicinity, according to the article. But MAP has already succeeded in making the public aware that the United States is doing a poor job of solving its murder cases. (In 2016, less than 60 percent of killings were solved, down from 92 percent solved in 1965.)

If you’re adept with statistics you can run the MAP tool from their website  to ferret out unsolved murder patterns in your own hometown.

Have any of the crime detectives in your stories (or your favorite author’s stories) used cutting edge data analytics such as MAP to help solve a fictional crime?




14 thoughts on “Detecting Hidden Serial Killers

  1. A friend sent me the article last week. Fascinating. I did notice, however, that when you look closely Hargrove included spree killers, gangland murders, and people who kill more than once, yet don’t fall into a true serial killer category, which include three or more murders with a cooling off period between murders.

    Not discounting the algorithm, because MAP really is a fantastic tool, most states simply don’t have the resources to enter the data into VICAP. The forms ask for loads of detailed information (100+ questions), and it takes time to fill them out, time better spent working the case. I’ve always wondered why departments don’t hire a technician whose sole purpose is to input case details into the database, but I assume it’s due to budget restraints.

    Link blockage is a real problem for law enforcement. One of the best things about MAP is that it may help in this area. But I wish Hargrove didn’t concentrate so heavily on geographical profiling, because poachers may slip through the cracks. Not every serial killer is a marauder (someone who kills in their comfort zone i.e. close to home or work) like this article suggests. Where they kill and how far they travel has valid psychological importance. While characteristics of the initial encounter plays a role, it can be argued that the amount of travel implies something about that offender i.e. organized vs. disorganized killer.

    • Certainly no cop wants to fill out another organization’s cumbersome reporting form, but I’d assume that police investigators collect their own detailed information in the course of conducting thorough investigations; perhaps a tech company could develop a program to extract existing case data, thereby reducing the investigator’s administrative burden. But such a program would also take money to develop, I realize!

  2. I remember Laurie R. King at Left Coast Crime earlier this year saying she was sick of serial killers. I’m sticking with her philosophy and avoiding them in my books. Makes life easier, too! 🙂

    • I’ve gotten tired of TV and film depictions of serial killers, probably because they’re too ghastly to watch. Still interested in reading about RL cases though! Thanks for dropping in, Terry!

  3. Fascinating article, Kathryn. Thanks for sharing it. Thanks also, Sue, for adding supplemental info.
    I’m reading Connelly’s The Poet (about a serial killer) right now. It’s from 1996, so there are quaint references to pay phones, beepers, and having to share limited computer time. Makes one appreciate how far technology has come in twenty years and what a boost that has been to law enforcement.
    Unfortunately, it seems the faster technology advances, the more crazies there are running around wreaking havoc. Are there really more serial, spree, and gang killers out there these days than in the 1800s and early 1900s? Is the per capita rate actually higher or are we simply more aware of them?
    Or are there more copycats seeking their fifteen seconds of fame?

    • I think the reporting processes must have changed since ‘65, so that we’re more aware of crime, but it’s just an assumption on my part. Certainly there are a lot more mass murders but that’s a whole ‘nother category!

    • I just read _The Drop_, which comes later in Connelly’s oeuvre (sp?). It’s a cold case with the interesting twist that the DNA IDs a person who was 8 at the time of the killing.

      I haven’t read enough of the Bosch stories to know how often Connelly returns to the serial killer motif.

      If there are too many serial killer novels, I suspect it’s because readers seem to want the “thrill” of the thriller, rather than detection or psychology. I think there’s some good detection in _The Drop_, and we get some psychology regarding the eight-year-old as an adult predator, but there’s no struggle, that I can see, with the psychology of the serial killer.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Kathryn. IMO, this is only the beginning. As AI gets better at recognizing patterns, we’re going to see more of this, with tech companies bidding to sell cutting-edge technology to law enforcement. And think about this, criminals could use the same technology to go the other way by developing foolproof ways of AVOIDING detection. It’s certainly a brave new world.

  5. Yes, it would take a very, very large amount of money to merge the data between systems. My phone provider got bought by another company five years ago. They are still working out how to merge the two computer systems. The US govt. has spent a large fortune attempting to get the various branches of the armed services to have supply systems that talk to one another, and they are far from a solution.

    The other concern with advancing technology is personal privacy. We could solve all crimes in a heartbeat if everyone agreed to wear a tracking device and all our movements were stored. I don’t think many of us would agree to that, though. I can imagine a plot where a killer selected a fall guy and followed the guy around murdering random people close to wherever the fall guy did an electronic purchase or used his cell phone.

    And as has been mentioned, I’m pretty much done reading about serial killers, especially when it involves sexual violence against women. Give me an engaging murder mystery where I have to puzzle out a motive beyond, “Because I’m crazy!”

  6. Then there are the undetected serial killers that kill in populations that are spread over wide geographic areas–Indian reservations, for example–who go undetected because (I’m going to get yelled at here) the local populations attribute the killings to supernatural beings, cryptid beasts, or other evanescent categories of killers, and do not report these killings, which they may view simply as disappearances.

  7. I think one of the problems with the overdone serial killer trope is that the bad guy rarely has complex motives. It is nearly impossible to empathize with him/ her. They often come off as cardboard cutouts. The protagonist is left to combat this flat character on mainly physical terms. Find, shoot, get away, find again, arrest.

    A second problem is body count. Joseph Stalin said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” In many serial killer stories one murder is frightening but more than two can get boring. P.D. James has a ‘two body’ structure for crime stories. One is the inciting incident and the second is the middle crisis. This works because Commander Dalgliesh has to SOLVE the crime instead of finding a pre-determined suspect.

    Great crime stories focus on the why it happens. It is a duel between protagonist and the antagonist, even if the antag isn’t on screen a lot. Watch “Chinatown” again. Robert Towne’s script is a free Ph.D. on how to tell a crime story. The misdirection v. the twist in the ending is both surprising and deliciously satisfying.

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