Archive for the ‘Dr. Katherine Ramsland’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Katherine Ramsland: Malignant Resentment – A Volatile Fuel for Violence

New PictureThe Washington Post reported that Elliot Rodger “flew under the radar” when police checked on him in response to his family’s concern. The ranting, suicidal college student who killed six people and injured thirteen last Friday in CA before shooting himself, was out to punish girls for rejecting him and guys who had a better life than he did. It was a “day of retribution,” he said.

People around him knew how much he blamed women for his loneliness. Some anticipated he might become violent.

Rodger’s earlier erratic behavior and refusal to get help or take medication had concerned his family and they’d asked police to pay him a “welfare” call. Sheriff’s deputies visited Rodger’s apartment on April 30 and found him to be polite, courteous, and quiet. He assured them he was not going to hurt anyone or himself, and they concluded that he did not pose a threat.

However, trying to assess danger to oneself or others from a single visit is generally pointless, unless the person is in an obviously psychotic state. Those who plot mass murder are secretive and will mask their intent from anyone who they think might stop them. An isolated visit cannot provide sufficient tools for determining the threat of future violence.

Reportedly, Rodger had seen several therapists, and a social worker had even contacted the police. He apparently did not get on well with others, but nevertheless did not like feeling so isolated and alone. He did have a record of personal difficulties that the visiting officers could have consulted, and his family knew that he had a mental illness. Even so, there is more to threat assessment than a loose collection of issues.

Predicting the potential for violence should draw on multiple domains of information. It’s not an analysis of just how one is currently behaving. No cop should bear the responsibility of making such a difficult judgment call.

The idea of “dangerousness,” or risk of violence, has been a central issue in the legal/mental health arena for years. Mental health experts once relied on their best clinical judgment, committing potentially violent people involuntarily. However, these assessments were correct in just one of three cases, so there were many “false positives” – people committed who would not be violent – and “false negatives” – people freed who then committed violence. The error rate was unacceptable.

During the 1980s, studies were undertaken to develop instruments to improve the percentage of correct assessments. Instead of focusing on dangerousness itself, they emphasized a variety of “risk factors.”

Actuarial prediction identifies the criteria used – age, gender, race, IQ – and assigns statistical weights to each in terms of which is most significant. Devices have been developed to determine such psychological conditions as the degree of psychopathy, impulsivity, paranoia, substance abuse, tendency to blame others, and reactive anger. Character and mental disorders are examined, along with school and criminal records, and a past history of violence or threatened violence. Some scales also evaluate attitudes about weapons.

For example, the Violence Risk Assessment Guide (VRAG) was developed at the Oak Ridge maximum security psychiatric hospital in Ontario, Canada. It’s an actuarial instrument for the prediction of violent recidivism, which means it has tested variables relevant to prediction in relationship to an outcome variable (any new violent offense). Predictor variables numbered around fifty and reflected those for which there was any empirical support for associations with violence.

The Historical Clinical Risk Management Scheme (HCR-20) offers a way to combine individual case analysis with an actuarial assessment. It uses a checklist of 20 items that identify historical and clinical risk factors to decide whether the individual is at a low, medium or high risk of violence. It improves upon actuarial approaches in tailoring an assessment to an individual, which allows for unique circumstances or conditions.

I’ve written a lot about mass murder. Studies I’ve looked at find that they are often rigid in temperament, they resent others and blame them for their own issues, they want to punish others, and they’re often self-defeating or suicidal (all of which were present in Rodger). Rarely do they have personal insight. Significant influences have been some form of mental instability, coupled with an inability to absorb and deal appropriately with life’s disappointments. Quite often, they feel entitled.

Usually they’ve made threats in the past and/or had fantasies about using violence to get their way. They arm themselves in preparation and think about the satisfaction of seeing others die. Some seek international fame. What they do is the result of long-term planning, with an ultimate goal. People around them have seen the red flags, but they will hide their specific plan. They want no interference.

Using actuarial data that have been affirmed with more studies, coupled with a case-specific assessment, is superior to intuitive judgment, although any prediction of a violent act must be qualified within a time period and set of circumstances. No one can predict future risk of violence with unerring accuracy, not even police officers, who see more violent incidents than most of us.

Still, even if Rodger had been erratic on April 30, when officers went to check, they could not have stated his level of danger a month hence. Even our best assessments cannot accomplish this. They can only provide the range of factors that put him at risk and identify those for which intervention might be helpful.

If Rodger refused such help, which he reportedly did, there isn’t much anyone can do until he clearly posed a risk of doing something now. That’s the state of our laws.

Perhaps our ability to prevent these incidents needs a re-adjustment of our cultural attitudes. Because a violent act of extreme aggression involves a complex interaction of factors, we cannot expect that a superficial observation by law enforcement will ensure our safety from a person with deadly intent. To assess danger to others requires a more sophisticated approach, which costs a lot more than we currently want to spend.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.

PostHeaderIcon Criminal Minds: Where It Began

Criminal Minds: Where It Began

The FBI’s first profiles were basically shots in the dark that hit the target.

By Dr. Katherine Ramsland

They didn’t have computers when Howard Teten founded the initial efforts of what would eventually become the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. They didn’t have much in the way of a database. They faced resistance from colleagues who viewed psychology as silliness and muddle. But they had good instincts.

Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany are credited with making the earliest behavioral analyses for difficult cases.

“By about 1960,” Teten says, “I had developed a hypothesis that you’d be able to determine the kind of person you were looking for by what you could see at the crime scene.”

To compile a collection for analysis and comparison, Teten had reviewed unusual homicides from several police agencies, as well as from the California Identification Officers Association. To test himself and develop his approach, he’d set up an experiment.

“When I received the information,” he said, “I would examine all the data and prepare a tentative description of the perpetrator. Then I would look at the individual found to have committed the crime and compare the perpetrator to my description.” To check himself on the details of psychological disorders, he consulted with two psychiatrists.

In 1970, Teten offered his own first profile. The stabbing murder of a woman in her home had stymied local law enforcement. Teten considered the circumstances, looked at their documents, and said that it was the work of an adolescent who lived close to the victim. This boy would feel guilty and ashamed. When confronted, he’d immediately confess. To find him, they should just go knock on doors in the immediate neighborhood. This prediction turned out to be right.

Teten soon teamed up with Patrick Mullany, who specialized in abnormal psychology. Together, they initiated the criminal psychology program, a 40-hour course. They presented behavioral analysis as one among many investigative tools. As they acquired cases for demonstration, they were asked for assistance with a stalled investigation of a kidnapping.

Mullany describes the abduction of Susan Jaeger as their first real challenge. Despite how the TV shows and movies make this look easy, it was anything but.

Susan had disappeared during a family camping trip in Montana in June 1973. Someone had sliced through the tent fabric and grabbed the seven-year-old before she could cry out. It had been a bold abduction and the family was devastated, but the site had yielded no physical evidence to help with leads. When no ransom demand had arrived, local investigators had feared the worst. They’d called in the FBI. About 10 months later, Special Agent Pete Dunbar attended the psychology training and asked Teten and Mullany to take a look.

Mullany believed that the perpetrator was a local resident, a Caucasian male who’d spotted an opportunity. He would have an impaired history of relationships and would tend to stay to himself. He had military experience and he’d killed before, and possibly since. It was likely he’d taken Susan to kill her. He’d also collect trophies, i.e. body parts.

They looked at other murders and missing persons cases in the general area, but none was similar.

An anonymous caller had suggested David Meirhofer, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, but when questioned, Meirhofer had been polite, articulate, well-dressed, and helpful. He seemed an unlikely candidate to local investigators. Under the influence of truth serum, he’d taken a polygraph and passed.

Still, he had many of the traits and behaviors that the agents had described. Mullany and Teten were convinced Meirhofer was a cold-hearted psychopath who could lie easily.

“Pat and I discussed his profile,” Teten recalls, “and then advised the Montana agent that this type of personality can pass a polygraph. For this reason, he should still be considered a suspect.”

Their belief in Meirhofer’s guilt failed to find support, even with Dunbar, who’d invited them into the case. Still, they were determined to see it through.

They urged the Jaegers to keep a tape recorder by their phone, and this hunch was solid. On the first anniversary of the abduction, a man called the Jaegers to say that Susan was with him. Mrs. Jaeger surprised him when she forgave him, provoking tears. The trace failed and voice analysis indicated that this caller could have been Meirhofer, but it was not definitive.

A 19-year-old woman, Sandra Dyckman, disappeared in 1974 and Meirhofer was again named as a suspect. (She had refused a date with him.) Human bone fragments discovered on an abandoned ranch near where Meirhofer had worked launched a more thorough investigation.

In an attempt to throw him off balance, Mullany urged Mrs. Jaeger to travel to Montana and confront him.

She did so. Although Meirhofer still denied involvement, he called her again, pretending to be someone else. She recognized his voice and called him David. This greatly upset him. But the FBI had traced the call and was able to arrest him.

They now had enough evidence for a warrant to search his home, where police discovered human remains wrapped in packages labeled “Deerburger.” One contained a hand that was identified as Sandra’s.

The day before Meirhofer committed suicide, he admitted to four murders, including Susan’s. Teten and Mullany believed that his motive had been the thrill of killing for sport. They thought he’d had a comorbid condition, schizopathy – a mix of psychopathy and simple schizophrenia.

Despite doubts about Teten and Mullany’s behavioral profile, their approach was vindicated.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.

Subscribe now!
Web Hosts