According to a new publication from our National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime—entitled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators—serial killers are much different in real life.
The report contains the collective insights of a group of experts from the law enforcement, academic, and mental health professions who took part in a symposium on serial murder. The symposium’s focus was actually two-fold: to bridge the gap between fact and fiction and to build up our collective body of knowledge to generate a more effective investigative response.
Here’s why that is so important: Serial killings are rare, probably less than one percent of all murders. They do, however, receive a lot of attention in the news and on screen—and much of the information out there is wrong. Yet, the public, the media, and even sometimes law enforcement professionals who have limited experience with serial murder, often believe what they read and hear. And this misinformation can hinder investigations.
According to the experts, there is no common thread tying serial killers together—no single cause, no single motive, no single profile. But there are some common "best practices" that they recommend for investigations:
- Strong leadership throughout the chain of command that can withstand the external pressure sometimes brought to bear on serial murder cases by politicians, the victims' families, and the media;
- Task forces that bring together agencies from the different jurisdictions to effectively combine expertise, resources, and information;
- An automated case management system like the FBI’s Rapid Start that organizes and collates lead information so investigators don't get overwhelmed;
- A team of crime analysts who can help investigators develop timelines of murders and backgrounds on suspects, highlight similar case elements, etc. (note: if your agency doesn't have such a team, ask for help from a neighboring jurisdiction or from our National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime);
- Consistent forensic services, which in the best case scenario means that the same crime scene team goes to each scene and the same crime lab processes all the evidence (but if that's not possible, then enhanced communication between the teams and the labs is a must to ensure consistency); and
- A strong media plan that successfully straddles the line between giving out relevant information to the media and not compromising the investigation—while helping to raise public awareness about the killings.
As for serial killer myths, our group of experts had this to say about a few of them:
1) Serial killers are not all dysfunctional loners: some have had wives and kids and full-time jobs and have been very active in their community or church or both.
2) Serial killers are not all white males: the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors the overall U.S. population.
3) Serial killers do not want to get caught: over time, as they kill without being discovered, they get careless during their crimes.
So much for the stereotypes!