Feature

Last October caught the Washington, D.C., area in a state of anxiety, as a sadistic sniper roamed the metropolitan area picking off victims for no apparent reason and with no obvious motive. Police held daily news conferences--some to convey eyewitness information about vehicles spotted at various shooting scenes and some to communicate with the sniper. A variety of experts, from former law enforcement officials to mental health professionals, told the news media the killer was likely a white man, based on knowledge of past serial killers. The public was warned to be on the lookout for a white van.

And the unknown criminal--or criminals--was arguably watching the media circus--and maybe even taking cues from the coverage. When the news media reported that the weekday-only shootings might be a clue to the sniper's lifestyle, the sniper struck on a Saturday. When "expert profilers" insinuated that the sniper was "playing God," the sniper left a tarot card that read, in part, "I am God," for police at one shooting scene. And perhaps most horrifying, when a local official said that children would be safe inside "locked down" schools, the sniper shot a student at a Maryland school.

On Oct. 24, the alleged snipers, John Lee Malvo and John Allen Mohammed, were arrested and charged with the shootings that left 13 dead and five wounded. Contrary to several "expert" profiles and eyewitness information, Malvo and Mohammed are African American and were driving a blue sedan. The Washington community let out a collective sigh of relief, as documented by the media, which covered the story night and day. But did the media coverage help or hurt the case? While many of the so-called experts interviewed were former law enforcement officials, some were identified as psychologists, psychiatrists or psychological profilers. Of particular interest to psychology, how did forensic psychologists respond to media requests for expert opinions and profiles of the killers? How should they have? And what did the entire episode do to the public's confidence in profiling?

The Monitor talked to several forensic psychologists to find out their take on the ordeal:

Scott Allen, PhD
police psychologist
Miami-Dade Police Department

"There wasn't enough information in terms of evidence or forensics on which people could really base a professional, profound profile. The dilemma was trying to provide a best estimate. In the beginning everything was going relatively well, but then the shooters became reactive to what was being said in the media.

"That would have been a good time to say, 'I'd rather wait to have more information' before agreeing to provide an opinion to the media. That would seem to be the tenor that most psychologists should have taken. Psychologists need to realize that just like in clinical practice, there's the same process and the same dynamic as if a patient is coming in to your office. If the media calls and you're not knowledgeable in that area, say 'I'm sorry, that's not my expertise and I don't know much about that.' Then if possible, refer them to a qualified colleague."

Mary Lindahl, PhD
associate professor of forensic psychology
Marymount University, Arlington, Va.

"There aren't many forensic psychologists around. It's unclear who most of these people [interviewed on the news] were and what their training was. I've never seen a sniper or a serial killer, so I declined to give [any interviews]. Profiling is really an art, not a science. It seems magical. It's only based on the profiles of previous cases. Everyone knows who famous serial killers were and almost all were white, male and had some kind of weapon training. The public could profile as well as the experts on TV. We may have been trying to reassure the public, but most ["experts"] were wrong. What does that do to the credibility of our field? It's an implied promise that we can't deliver on.

"Psychologists could educate the public on what we do know, rather than speculating--for example, on the issue of eyewitness testimony. We know a fair amount about it, and it seems to the layman to be the most credible of all evidence, but there are serious credibility issues associated with it. If some forensic psychologist had talked about such issues as the problems with eyewitness testimony it might have been helpful."

Baruch Fischhoff, PhD
professor of social and decision sciences
Carnegie Mellon University

"I don't think any lessons were learned about communicating with the public. I think the next time we have a crisis like this we'll have the same kind of improvisation we had this time--to the public's detriment. The challenge in any terrorizing situation--which is a form of psychological warfare--and the best defense is having realistic, authoritative information coming from official sources. This is a situation where we understand a lot about how to communicate, how to tell people that we don't know exactly what's going on, and how to treat people like adults, attempting to make fateful decisions for themselves and their families.

"You hear all the time that we're a panicky nation. But there is strong evidence that people don't panic if they are treated respectfully. However, if you tell people they will panic, then it becomes an expectation. I think we have science on how to estimate and communicate risks. It's hard to shoot from the hip effectively in times of crisis. We should prepare for them. One part of the message in the sniper case was to draw on psychology's knowledge about our ability to type suspects. If all we're doing is speculating, then we should say we're speculating. I'm offended to see the science ignored."

Calvin Frederick, PhD
forensic psychologist
Los Angeles

"People should be cautious [about speaking to the media]. A lot of misinformation can inadvertently be transmitted that can be helpful to a sniper or terrorist. People are woefully naive about that--even people in authority. I think the media frequently will grab anyone who is willing to talk. The media are just as much at fault as some of our airheaded professionals.

"Forensic psychologists should not share their profiles on the news with the media. Well-trained psychologists can be of help, but they should be behind the scenes. Not many psychologists are involved in profiling. Many would probably do well, but they aren't trained. Very few of the people sounding off on the tube are board certified. The field still has a long way to go. It's not as refined as we'd like it to be."

N.G. Berrill, PhD
forensic psychologist
New York, N.Y.

"At the end of the day, no one fathomed or ever discussed the fact that these guys were black. Everyone spoke actuarily. People are always capable of surprising us and acting outside of our experience in ways that we haven't tallied data points for. That's the reality, even when the research points to something, you can still be wrong. The lesson is, we can't with 100 percent certainty make predictions and statements. But that doesn't make sensational news. If you're too sober, then you're not exciting."

Mark Zelig, PhD
forensic psychologist and retired police commander
Salt Lake City

"When you give information to the public that is incorrect, you may create a mindset that raises the level of suspicion for those who are not perpetrators more than those who are. If I'm at work and I have a coworker who fits the described profile, that's usually a pretty stressful situation, and people might look for a reason to deny their suspicions. What if it was your romantic partner or a family friend? Then an expert gives you information via the media that allows you to discount that person, it might be a great relief and there might be justification to never advise law enforcement."

Rona Fields, PhD
forensic psychologist
Washington, D.C.

"There are lots of ways psychologists could share our skills. We have to remember that we're scientists, not speculators. Everyone wants their day in the sun. Psychologists get caught up in that. But the obvious thing we ought to know about--how to pursue a question scientifically--gets lost in the dust. As scientists, we have to only take into account what evidence or what kinds of factors are apparent--what presents itself. We can't speculate from other cases to this one. I think the biggest mistake we made was trying to take unknowns and compare them to other cases. I think this is where profiling goes wrong."