Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Massachusetts Association of Criminal Justice Education 2016 Award for Innovation in Criminal Justice Speech

The program for the MACJE "Expanding the Boundaries of Criminal Justice Education" conference can be downloaded here.

I am proud to share the history of the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative with you today as I accept the MACJE Award for Innovation in Criminal Justice. This award demonstrates that those functioning quietly in the background can make an impact and is an important acknowledgment of the influence one can have on the direction of a field. The collaborative was a game changer in the criminal justice community, the result of combining various novel ideas in a unique way. To realize a vision for the future through better solutions applied more effectively using processes and technologies utilized in other industries is the essence of innovation. I am gracious of your recognition of my work in the field of serial homicide research and humbled by your attention to this story about finding a way along divergent paths.

Setting forth on the road to implement this innovation has been an incredibly rewarding experience but not one without its fair share of obstacles and pitfalls, nemeses and false starts. The first trial I overcame was my own cognizance that my desire to be a cartoon animator should be put aside in search of accomplishing something grand, akin to my father’s emigration here from Chile. For years, I also searched voraciously for a way to set myself apart from my overachieving and widely praised younger brother. I came to realize that aspiring to professionally draw superheroes was a way of coping with early adversity and familial dysfunction by attaching myself to their greatness but felt primed to seek out the life histories of those that endured toxic stress. I began to recognize an inherent interest in the duality of others surfacing within me. Questions also arose about the origin of the dissonance that contributes to one’s false representations and differences in public and private personas. I fell upon the topic of serial homicide accidently after a chance meeting with a resident assistant at Northeastern University in which I was handed John Douglas’ book Mindhunter. I thought it was worth exploring how to harness the negative outlook I received as a consequence of my upbringing. Only after a period of introspection did I seriously consider pursuing this research, a process that irreversibly bonded my psyche to this work. Once I met Professor James Alan Fox, happenstance gave way to what I now perceive to be a fated outcome. From then on, I decided to devote my time and energy to this outlet and fully pursue my newfound area of interest.

It became apparent early on that the entire field of serial homicide research was built on a foundation of lore and stereotypes. Dismantling this institutionalized mythology became my primary goal and served as a means to differentiate myself from others that were deeply invested in psychoanalyzing the archetypes of Bundy, Gacy, Berkowitz and Dahmer. Without a PhD, though, I struggled to be taken seriously during this now sixteen-year journey and worked hard to ward off the degrading pull of imposter syndrome. Attempting to disrupt the status quo put me in direct opposition to the men now promulgating these myths to maintain the remnants of their own legend. This decision was a weighty one as it guaranteed my quest would be loaded with false starts, periods of despair and loneliness. While consumed with grief over Chandra Levy’s death - due to my belief that a serial killer was responsible and our shared goals and similar age - my mantra to follow the trail to the end regardless of the costs was formed. A principle component of this maxim was a challenge line ensuring that I approached this topic with professionalism and integrity. Paramount to me was making my idol Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab proud of my ongoing endeavor to transform into a “now-ist” as I shunned the educational complex as he had done in his success with “just” a bachelor’s degree.

Combating antiquated viewpoints required hordes of data that existed in many disparate formats across researchers that worked in silos without interacting with one another. Because the standing perception is that men researching these crimes desired to emulate the offenders, collecting data was the most practical way to remain equitable and legitimize my interest to those questioning my intentions. Convincing staunchly territorial folks that often disliked each other and were twice my age to buy into a reliance on technology to aid in understanding serial crime and mass violence through information sharing and discussion was critical but I became known as the “data pest” to many that openly criticized the use of such techniques. Since my own personal history contains the ingredients consigned to the offenders I study - torment from classmates, adverse childhood experiences, personality disorders and broken relationships - I was equipped to absorb the insults. Comments of this nature simply fueled my swelling blue flame but the potential exposure of my dual role as both hospital employee and serial homicide researcher by my enemies has introduced some measure of risk in going public with my involvement in what was once a well-kept secret. Regardless, I carried on with the process of transforming my grief and anguish into a tangible force for good.

I learned that the state of research into serial killers and criminal profiling needed an infusion of elevated purpose after petitioning to construct and disseminate a survey to gauge the further usefulness of criminal investigative analysis in the 21st century. I applied the concept that came natural to me - open collaboration - to the problem of diminished validity and scope after being afforded the opportunity to contact several thought leaders by a supervisory special agent at the FBI during an internship at their academy. Echoes of this intentionally open design have remained constant throughout my work across several disciplines and varying personalities. I pledged to never unduly profit from my work and assembled a group of likeminded researchers, practitioners and law enforcement officers to assist in my cause of furthering serious inquiries into a realm often characterized as being “more art than science”. Given the poor reception of the recent Jon Benet Ramsey CBS special, my instincts were correct in that FBI survey ten years ago as it appears that criminal profiling has fallen from prominence.

We must turn instead to rigorously collected data if we hope to unlock the remaining unknowns about serial killers. I was inspired to found the Northeastern University Atypical Homicide Research Group after participating in a virtual breakthrough series put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This experience solidified my belief in the power of mixed methods, translational research and the notion that bold ideas can arrive during the pursuit of larger discoveries. Combining the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative’s data with Mike Aamodt’s Radford Serial Killer Project would aid in my vision to create the largest repository of serial homicide data available. After years of relationship building, we got to work. Our labor proved almost immediately useful in confirming some of my early findings. We now know that every other serial killer since 1995 has been African American and only eighteen percent of offenders match the dubious FBI demographic profile. The percentage of serial killers with domestic violence arrests in their history was a statistic that helped close the Felix Vail investigation. Our next venture is opening the database to all over the Harvard University Dataverse to recruit scientists to help us cull out significance from the data and attribute meaning to it. In practice, one such project arose from efforts to prove or disprove the Smiley Face Killer theory. We enlisted the expertise of a local researcher maintaining a database of men that have drowned under suspicious circumstances and are in the process of attributing statistical analysis to tease out any anomalies.

As a Board Member of the Murder Accountability Project, I work to ensure that data helps to identify potential serial murder victim clustering. We are currently partnering with the Western University Cold Case Society to investigate a cluster of homicides in Atlanta, an initiative that may produce actionable leads for detectives or provide closure for families. A true highlight of my career was contributing to the Globe and Mail’s inquiry into the murders of indigenous women and helping them to identify the factors contributing to their victimization. Some definite low points came after uncovering a plagiarist in the collaborative and then encountering a now rival who unabashedly stole the Atypical Homicide Research Group’s roster log to create his own cold case group, one that he comically refers to as a group of “crime fighting super friends”. From this interaction, I learned that becoming a caricature and making empty promises to victim’s families in the hopes of signing on for your own television show should never compromise one’s values. Defying the internal conflict about profiting from the misery of others and giving into the entertainment sphere is almost as abhorrent as the actions of these killers themselves. Sometimes the things we reject say more about us than the projects we undertake. My refusal to allow the actions of this one individual to damper other opportunities led to some great experiences. During my recent technical advisor role on A&E’s upcoming “The Killing Season” docuseries, I strove to attain a sense of realism and helped ground a group of Northeastern University graduate students I advised during a seminar titled Special Topics: Serial Offending. These young women reaffirmed my faith in the junior scientist as I greatly admired their work with the serial homicide data.

As the world moves towards a future guided by artificial intelligence, I have tailored my recent work to create an electronic surveillance dashboard and adapt the technologies of Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to better help locate serial homicide offenders. Human relationships will still be a vital aspect of these efforts, though, and remain at the forefront of my mind. Along that vein, we recently partnered with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and the Homicide Investigation Tracking System of the Washington State Attorney General's Office. The data resulting from these sharing initiatives will be monumentally important in increasing the validity of the Radford database. Although the future holds great things for our research, continuous exposure to these offenders and their crimes has admittedly taken a psychological toll over the years.

This award comes at a time when I contemplate walking away from this research after burning out surrounded by mentions of heinous acts. To maintain some semblance of a normal life, I question my own continued ability to contribute to the field and waver towards a breakneck commitment to my passion but also teeter towards an active separation from what mutated into an obsession. There exists an unending push and pull in me while splitting my time between a day job and to what I once playfully referred as my “other life”, a byproduct of my reluctance to give myself completely to an area of research I understand to be all-consuming. To those willing to engage with someone that might be retired within this current decade I will be a colleague, mentor and friend while grappling with questions about my role in the scheme of things. Part of me considers my work building the homicide researcher network to be a selfish endeavor, one that might result in the torch passed to the next group of academics. Thankfully, I may be relieved of making a conscious decision to vacate my post as my connection to this research could be severed artificially due to the steady decline in serial homicide we discovered. Although this decrease signals a lessened need for analysts like me to continue tracking and reporting on the activity of serial murderers, your acknowledgment of my work has reaffirmed the desire to hone my focus and answer the call from my mentors to assume the mantle once they retire. Perhaps once a dashboard requiring no human input to collect and catalog all instances of serial homicide is built and a firm understanding about the reasons for the decrease in serial homicide is established I can rest easy. Until then I shall allow myself to be drawn even deeper still into the expanding abyss.