- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

In the end, there was no white van and no white man.Police were holding suspects and a vehicle in the East Coast sniper shootings that failed to fit the stereotypes put forth by network television's endless array of self-assured, authoritative-sounding, yet often contradictory profiling experts.
In the end, the sniper arrests looked like one big step for police-community cooperation and one giant leap backward for the wildly speculative pseudo-scientific chatter that sometimes passes for criminal "profiling" on TV news channels.
Various profilers said the killer did not have children. John Allen Muhammad has four. I saw an Army Delta Force veteran insist that the killer was "definitely not military." Mr. Muhammad turned out to be a Persian Gulf war veteran who served in the Army for 11 years.
And everyone, it seems, figured the sniper was one or maybe two white men, since this type of crime tends to be committed by white men. The suspects, Mr. Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, are male, as expected, but also black, which came as a surprise to many including me.
Everybody profiles to some degree. I, for one, expected the suspect or suspects to be male because female serial killers are very rare and tend to kill with poison, drug overdoses or some other more intimate method than a rifle with a sniper scope. Women, the experts say, are much more likely than men to kill people whom they know.
Still, I confess, I also figured the sniper would be white. Like a lot of other black Americans I know, I took some small sense of relief out of a stereotype that, for a change, worked in the favor of blacks. But that stereotype also overlooks such notable black mass murderers a Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad killer, or Wayne Williams, who was convicted in a series of Atlanta child slayings.
Multiple murder is an equal-opportunity crime, even if it produces unequal results. According to a database compiled by another widely quoted expert, James Alan Fox, the Lipman professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, 55 percent of sniper killers are white and 43 percent are black.
Overall, however, blacks are only about 22 percent of reported serial killers, Mr. Fox told me in an interview. Black serial killers may get less attention because serial killers tend to kill people of their same race, Mr. Fox said, and black-on-black crimes tend to "get less media attention and public attention."
Still, Mr. Fox said, he is "not a big fan" of profiling.
"It does not allow you the kind of certainty or specificity that will enable you to put an all-points bulletin out on someone. It doesn't give you a name and address. It is usually useful for evaluating possible suspects who come to light in more conventional ways. For example, a profile can help you to evaluate whether a phone-in tip points to the kind of person who would commit such a crime. But it does not do much more than that."
Besides, it is not the profilers who invite themselves on the air or ask questions that venture into wild speculation. When fear is in the air because of a threat as pervasive as this one, even the chattering heads on TV help viewers to gain some sense of control, however modest, of their situation, Mr. Fox noted.
He has a point. When people are turning to the media in the hope of finding someone who can help them to make sense of a senseless situation, profilers can be there for them. But viewers also have to beware of putting too much stock in what the profilers say, if only because it can have us chasing a stereotype while the real culprit slips away.
Perhaps, instead of hiring all those retired military officers, former law-enforcement technicians and professional "profilers," the media might as well hire astrologers, palm readers and clairvoyants, as Paddy Chayefsky's nightmare movie vision, "Network," imagined they someday might.
Whenever I see an expert chattering away into areas beyond his or her expertise, I feel as though that day has inched disturbingly closer.
In the end, for all the talk of profiling, a military spy plane and other super science and pseudo-science, it was old-fashioned dogged police work and cooperation from the public and the media that cracked the case.
The best contribution made by the media may have been announcing the suspects' car and license number that led to the arrests at a Maryland rest stop. Excessive profiling can actually alienate some of the populations whose cooperation is most needed. If there is any important lesson to be drawn from this whole tragic saga, it's hard to think of a better one than that.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide