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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Victimology: The Study of Victims in Criminal Investigations


From late 1989 to late 1993, in the Australian state of New South Wales, a dozen or so young tourists had gone missing along one of the countries major highways. Many of the bodies were later found in the Belanglo State Forest, in varying stages of decay. Some traveled in pairs, others alone. They were both males and females, aged between 19 and 22. They come from different backgrounds, different countries, and were traveling to different destinations.

Despite these differences, all of the victims shared a common characteristic that linked them: they were hikers and backpackers. These similarities had the possibility of providing investigators with a clue about the likely perpetrator of the crimes, and provide the profiler with vital information not only about the perpetrator, but about the victims themselves. Collectively, this information is referred to as "Victim logy," or the study of victims: an examination of every facet of their lifestyle, background, health, and physical characteristics. It is hoped that through an in-depth examination of the victims, we may know the perpetrator a little better.

Victim logy is important in the overall investigative process because it not only tells us who the victims were, their health and personal history, social habits and personality, but also provides ideas as to why they were chosen as victims. In many situations, the offender will hold back from choosing a victim until one that meets his needs comes along, possibly allowing him to fulfill some fantasy or desire he has. Because of this, the way the victim is chosen is important and gives an insight into how the offender thinks, which subsequently affects how the perpetrator acts. If we are able to determine how the offender is acting now, we may be better able to determine his future behavior, possibly leading to a successful arrest.

Closely related to victimology are the concepts of method of approach, method of attack and risk assessment. If we know details of the victims' personalities (i.e. they may be naturally cautious), then we may be able to determine, in conjunction with an analysis of the crime scene, how they were initially approached by the offender. The same will apply for the way they were attacked and overpowered. If this information is not distinguishable through the crime scene, then an analysis of the victims' overall risk, that is, the chances of them becoming a victim, may be of some help. If we examine this along with the risks the offender was willing to take to acquire a certain victim, then we will have an overall picture of who the victim was and what drove the offender to choose this particular person as a victim.

This article is the second part in the Basic Concepts and Issues series, and will provide the reader with an overview of the concepts of victimology, method of approach, method of attack and risk assessment. It will not provide an insight into why a particular offender will choose a particular victim, but will cover some of the general considerations of victim selection and acquisition.

Victim logy

“In the rush to examine a criminal's behavior, it is not difficult to become distracted by the dangling carrot of that criminal's potential characteristics and forget about the value of understanding his victims”
Brent Turvey

Victimology in its most simple form is the study of the victim or victims of a particular offender. It is defined as “the thorough study and analysis of victim characteristics” (Turvey), and may also be called "victim profiling" (Holmes). The reason a good victimology is important is that the victim constitutes roughly half of the criminal offence, and as such, is as much a part of the crime as the crime scene, weapons, and eyewitnesses. This is especially true when we are presented with a live victim, as this was the last person to witness the crime, and may be able to provide the best behavioral and physical description of the offender.

Apart from the above considerations, the victim's background may provide us with important information about past activities or lifestyle, possibly leading directly to the generation of a suspect. The victim has traditionally been neglected in police investigations, and when a profile is requested, the victim information is often missing from the police reports. This should not be taken to mean that no police services use victim information, rather, until recently many have neglected to consider the victim's past as important. Often, the best way to approach a profile is through the victimology (Ressler), and is one of the most beneficial tools in classifying and solving a violent crime (Douglas).

In a perfect world, the following information should be available for the profilers on the victim before they begin to work the case (Turvey, Holmes):
Physical traits
Marital status
Personal lifestyle
Occupation
Education
Medical history
Criminal justice system history
Last known activities, including a timeline of events
Personal diaries (if known and available)
Map of travel prior to offence
Drug and alcohol history
Friends and enemies
Family background
Employment history
The above list is not "exhaustive" in that it does not provide a total and absolute checklist of those things that should be included in the victimology. It is a rough guide only and each case, with a unique perpetrator and victim, will require its own unique victimology.

There are some important questions that should accompany any study of the victim, and these will hopefully lead not only to some answers, but also to more questions which should also be addressed. Again, this list is not complete, but should give the reader an idea about what to look for and ask of the crime:
  • Why was this particular person targeted?
  • How were the person targeted, or was the person a victim of opportunity?
  • What are the chances of the person becoming a victim at random (and therefore opportunistic)?
  • What risk did the offender take to commit the crime?
  • How was the victim approached, restrained and/or attacked?
  • What was the victim's likely reaction to the attack?
The answers to these questions will provide some ideas about the offender's motive and MO, and possibly his signature. From this, other examinations can be made about the offender's likely background including his knowledge of forensic and police procedures, his possible occupation, his physical characteristics and social skills. Where possible, inferences made by the profiler about the offender should be checked off against other inputs such as eyewitness accounts and the information available from the crime scene. If the information "fits," it is more probable that the conclusions are correct. If it does not "fit," then further support should be sought, or other possibilities explored.

The following case study should provide the reader with a greater understanding of the need for an extensive victimology. It is drawn from the author's own files, and the conclusions were provided to a media source upon request.

The offender was dubbed the "Granny Rapist" by the media, for reasons which should be obvious. From January 1998 to January 1999, a lone offender had been breaking into the homes of elderly people in the capital city of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. All of the victims were elderly and some were sexually assaulted, while some managed to fight off the attacker. When he met with resistance, he simply got up and left without much further struggle. The attacks occurred between midnight and 4.00 a.m., and all occurred in Housing Commission residences. There appeared to be premeditation in all of the offenses, suggesting that each victim was specifically targeted by the offender.

The entry was made to the premises in varying ways: in one case a hole was cut in the mesh so he could reach inside and unlock the door; in another, a set of keys had been stolen prior to the incident, a copy made, and the originals returned. The offender was always heavily clothed, and wore a mask and gloves. He spoke in a whisper.

In examining the victimology in this case, the victims' ages and current living arrangements meant that the odds of this occurring by chance were very slim indeed, suggesting that the victims had been pre-selected. It was felt that older victims had been selected because they were more easily controlled and were less likely to have visitors at those early morning hours. Also, the fact that he had stolen a set of keys, duplicated, and then returned them signalled his intention to return at a later date.

So how did the offender come to meet all of these victims? Given that they all rented through the Housing Commission, it was felt that the offender probably worked for the Commission in some capacity. This could have been as a maintenance man, gardener, or painter or builder. It appeared that the offender knew the layout of the property, so more likely than not, he had been inside at some point prior to the offences. Given the lengths the offender went to in an attempt to conceal his identity also suggested he had personally encountered some if not all of his victims at some point. He felt that they may be able to identify him if he was not well concealed.

These inferences are somewhat basic, and just an example of the ways that victimology can provide information about many aspects of a criminal investigation. Simply by looking into victimology, we can determine whether the victims were chosen at random, possibly by whom, and we may even be able to determine some of the offender's characteristics through a good victimology. In the above case, the offender had pre-selected his victims, had entered their properties prior to the assaults, and was employed by the Housing Commission as a painter.

There are three main issues that can be provided through victimology and these are context, connections, and investigative direction (Turvey). Using the above case, it would have been possible to provide investigative direction in that the police should look for a male who had prior access to the properties, may have been employed by the Housing Commission, and was probably employed in a profession such as a painter, builder, lawn-mower or general maintenance man.

By understanding how and why the above victims were chosen, a "relationship" between the offender and victims was established. The other kinds of links that may be provided between the offender and victim include work colleagues, geographic links (such as a neighbor), hobby related links (sports clubs), or social links (victim met the offender in a bar). The number of possible links is endless, so a good victimology is essential to narrow this down.

Method of Approach

The method of approach is a term that refers to the offender's way of getting close to his victims (Turvey). It is useful to examine as it may provide many clues about the offender, such as his social skills, physical build, and ability to manipulate and charm. There are generally three methods of approach, described as con, surprise and blitz. These may occur singularly, or in conjunction with one of the other methods such as a con/blitz or surprise/blitz combination. While the terms are fairly self explanatory, a brief explanation of each will be given below, along with some examples of how they may be employed by an offender in a crime.

The "con" describes an offender who deceives a victim into believing an imaginary situation exists, with the intention of luring the victim into a more favorable position for the offender, or lowering the victim's guard to make the attack easier. One possible example of this type of behavior is the offender posing as a delivery or maintenance man to gain access to a house or other residence. The character of Buffalo Bill in the movie The Silence of the Lambs employed this method when he feigned a broken arm, thereby requiring help to move furniture, and luring the victim inside his van where he subdued her with the use of physical force. This behavior, while fictional in this instance, was actually employed by the serial murderer Ted Bundy. Through his study of psychology, Bundy had learned that people are more likely to come to the aid of someone with a physical handicap, and he subsequently began wearing a cast on his arm to assist him in the acquisition of victims.

The "surprise" approach is usually characterized by an offender laying in wait for his victim, then quickly subduing that person. The offender may wait for certain conditions to be met (such as allowing a car to pass, or allowing the victim to fall asleep), or may be relatively uncaring about the presence of eyewitnesses. This approach, too, may be combined with the blitz approach. An example of this approach would be where an offender hides in some bushes near a car park, waiting for a lone female to walk to her vehicle. While she waits near the car looking for her keys, the attacker walks up behind her and grabs her without her noticing his approach.

The "blitz" describes an approach where an offender rapidly and excessively uses force to quickly overcome the victim's defenses to get control of the situation. The problem with this is that it requires the use of force; therefore the blitz would most accurately be described as an attack (Turvey). Usually, the blitz will be preceded by a surprise approach, as in the example above. All of these methods describe the approach only, and not the subsequent attack, which is why it is difficult to apply the blitz style to the way the offender, approaches the victim.
It may not be readily apparent strictly from the crime scene how the offender first approached the victim, though eyewitnesses or the victim, if alive, may be able to provide this information. It is important to know because an offender who manages to con a very suspicious and alert person could probably be deemed to have very good social skills. An offender who manages to surprise or blitz a 250-pound athlete may be described as physically fit or agile, or an offender who uses no verbal interaction at all and simply blitzes his victim may indicate that his social and verbal skills are poor. This will enable the profiler to be able to "paint a picture" of the offender's physical, verbal and social skills, and -- confirmed against other information -- might provide a viable lead or suspect in an ongoing case.
Method of Attack

The method of attack refers to the offender's mechanisms for initially overpowering a victim once he has made his approach (Turvey). It is generally not appropriate to use the terms "con" and "surprise" here, as they are not really suited to describing attacks.
The method of attack is probably best described in relation to the degree of force used and the presence of any weapons and their role in the attack. The attack may range from mild (such as verbal threats) to severe (overwhelming physical assault with the excessive use of a weapon). The method of attack may not immediately follow the approach; for example, if the offender is interrupted or the victim escapes momentarily. In any situation though, the method of approach and the method of attack should be examined as separate to one another, then as a combination together to provide a sequence of events and context information.

Masters cites the following example of a crime committed by Jeffrey Dahmer to illustrate the method of approach and the method of attack. On the 20th of May, 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer met Raymond Smith at the 219 Tavern. Dahmer approached him and offered him $50 to come back to his place for sex. This is the method of approach and could most accurately be described as a con. Dahmer used a ruse or ploy to get the prospective victim to lower his guard and follow him back to his apartment. When they arrived back about 3.00 a.m., Smith stated that he would not be staying long for fifty dollars, and Dahmer asked him to stay the night. Smith said it would cost a lot more, and was assured that he would get the rest in the morning. Dahmer went into the kitchen where he mixed up a concoction of alcohol and sleeping tablets. Within half an hour, Smith was unconscious and Dahmer strangled him on the floor. Even though the victim was unconscious, this still constitutes the attack, and in this case, is best described as a blitz.
The method of attack is vital to understand what an offender is capable of and what he is comfortable with in a given environment, with a given victim (Turvey). These issues have implications in many areas such as with future victims. Say for instance, in examining the method of approach and attack of one offender over a series of attacks that we can determine the offender was reluctant to use force against the victims, and showed overall concern for their welfare. It may mean that they genuinely do not want to hurt their victims, and that the safety of further victims may not be in jeopardy. In examining the method of approach and attack of another offender, we can see that he is taking progressively greater risks and using more force against each victim, including using a weapon in later attacks. The safety of subsequent victims of this offender is in question given the escalation of violence in the attacks.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment involves determining the risk of a particular person becoming a victim of crime. Occasionally we will hear reports about violent crime stating that the perpetrator had gone to great lengths to acquire the victim. In other cases, we may hear that the perpetrator has acquired a victim of opportunity. Perhaps in this last instance, something that the victim had done, or was involved in, had elevated their risk of becoming a victim of that crime. This is not to suggest that the individual was somehow responsible for being a victim, just that certain factors about lifestyle or situation had increased the chances of victimization. This may include such things as prostitution, excessive drunkenness, drug use, or traveling alone late at night in an area known for criminal activity. A risk assessment may also include an examination of the risk an offender was willing to take in acquiring a victim. This is known as offender risk assessment.

Victim risk is broken into three basic levels: low risk, medium risk, and high risk. They all refer to the degree of chance of someone coming to harm by virtue of their personal, professional and social life. An example of someone who has at high risk of becoming a victim would be a prostitute, as a prostitute is constantly exposed to a large number of strangers, may travel alone late at night, is often in contact with drugs or drug users, may be of low priority to police (if attacked or killed) and will usually not be missed until long after the event. A low risk victim may be someone who has a steady job, lots of friends, rarely travels alone, and does not have a predictable travel schedule. There are a large number of factors that contribute to the risk of an individual, and the above examples provide just a few of these.

Victim risk is further broken down into several subcategories, and for a more in depth review of these, perhaps the best work available is that of Brent Turvey. Much of the following information has been taken directly from that source.
The victim lifestyle risk refers to the overall risk present by virtue of an individual's personality and their personal, professional and social environment. Lifestyle risk is basically affected by who that person is, and how the person relates to certain risks in the environment. There are certain factors which will increase a person's lifestyle risk, and these include the following:

Aggressiveness
Anger
Emotional outbursts
Hyperactivity
Impulsivity
Anxiety
Passivity
Low self esteem
Emotional withdrawal
To put one of the above characteristics in context, imagine the following example: If the victim is prone to emotional outbursts, the individual may be more likely to storm out of a house during a fight to "cool down." While out, the person encounters an offender who assaults and abducts him/her. The emotional outburst has contributed to becoming a victim by virtue of the fact that it placed the person in harms way, and may lead others to believe the victim will not be back for hours, as this is usual following such a disagreement. This increases the amount of time the offender has to get away.

The victim incident risk refers to the risk present when an offender initially attacks a victim by virtue of a victim's state of mind, or hazards in the environment. Say for instance, that a person has just left work after being fired from his job. He has just invested a lot of money in property and is preoccupied with paying off his financial commitments. When walking to his car in the evening, he fails to notice the person waiting around the entrance to the car park. The fact that he is preoccupied by his newly acquired financial state increases his incident risk because he is failing to notice unusual or potentially dangerous factors in his surroundings.
Now an examination of the risk as it relates to the offender will be made. The offender risk is very important as it tells you what risks the offender was willing to take in order to get this particular victim, at that particular time, and in that particular location. The first type of offender risk is known as the modus operandi risk. The MO risk refers to the nature and extent of the skill, planning, and precautionary acts taken by the offender before, during and after the crime. As the MO refers to those things the offender had to do to successfully complete the crime, the MO risk refers to those things that the offender does to reduce his own risk of being disturbed, thwarted or apprehended.

The MO risk is broken into low risk (referring to those offenders who show a high amount of skill, planning and precautionary acts) and high risk (referring to those offenders who show a low amount of skill, planning and precautionary acts). The MO risk is low because the offender plans many aspects of the crime, thereby reducing their risk for committing the crime. The opposite applies to high MO risk offenders.

Offenders may also be exposed to incident risk, which refers to the possibility of them suffering harm or loss. Offender incident risk is subjective in that it is the risk perceived by the profiler for that offender. The following example will provide an idea as to how an offender's perceptions of a situation will misinform them as to the offender incident risk:

A 22-year-old college student attends a costume party where everyone has to come dressed as something starting with the letter "D." While he is strictly heterosexual and has a steady girlfriend, as a joke he decides to go as a "Drag Queen." Later that night, after the party is over, the student calls a taxi but is told there is a two hour wait. He decides to walk the short distance to his home. While walking along a darkened street, he is accosted by three men who believe him to be an actual "Drag Queen," and put him in hospital, where he later dies as a result of his extensive injuries.

This is not the usual attire that the victim would have been dressed in, and the offenders may not have ordinarily targeted him. As their perception of the victim was that of a "Drag Queen," they believed that the victim may not have reported the incident, and even if he did, the offenders may have perceived that little attention would have been paid to him because of his choice of lifestyle. It would be important in a case such as this to examine the victim's actual lifestyle (a student), and then to examine the offenders' incident risk in relation to their perception of the victim's lifestyle (that of a "Drag Queen"). The offenders may have had similar convictions in the past, May already is known to police, and their apprehension is subsequently made easier.

Conclusion

The victim has traditionally been ignored as a component of the crime. Hopefully, this article has provided the reader with an insight into not only how important the victim is to an investigation, but why they are important in the overall scheme of the crime. A complete victimology will usually provide information about the victim's life, and this coupled with an examination of other aspects of not only the victim's risk, but the risk the offender was willing to take to acquire that person as a victim, may provide information about the offender as well.

Any examination made of a crime with an unknown offender that does not consider the victim as a part of the crime will be lacking in information from the outset. As the accuracy and completeness of the whole investigation rests almost completely on the accuracy and completeness of the information provided, it is important for investigators to focus as much on the victim as they do on the potential perpetrator. Only then will they be provided with the maximum amount of information to examine, in the hope of solving serious violent and serial crime.

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