Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Mind/Brain

Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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missing poster
Photo courtesy Indiana University

Police Work

Sex offenders and serial killers. Not standard research areas, perhaps, but two Indiana University professors are producing interesting findings about both. For the last several years, Victoria Simpson Beck, assistant professor of criminal justice at IU East, has been studying the effect of sex offender notification policies on community behavior. In 1996, U.S. federal law began to require certain sex offenders to register their addresses with criminal justice agencies and obligated states to release that registration information to citizens.

Beck describes herself as "the first researcher to examine whether being notified prompts community members to engage in protective behaviors to prevent sexual victimization." Protective behaviors include things such as installing lights, buying a dog, or buying a firearm. In general, Beck has found that people receiving notification of a sex offender moving into their community are significantly more likely to engage in precautionary or protective behaviors, which in turn may decrease the likelihood of sexual victimization. Beck notes that recognizing the link between notification and protective behaviors can be helpful to police, who may be able to "encourage appropriate crime prevention measures through community meetings."

Notification procedures vary from state to state, however, which led Beck to questions about the advantages and disadvantages of different notification processes. In recent studies, Beck and co-authors compared notification processes in Kentucky and Ohio to examine how different procedures affect community reactions and perceptions. Kentucky's law is more passive, requiring residents to seek out notification information from Web sites, while Ohio's is more aggressive, requiring sheriffs to provide written notification to individuals and organizations.

Beck found that Ohio's notification procedures were far more efficient at generating community awareness. "If the goal of community notification is ... to mobilize community efforts to monitor and control potential sex offender recidivism," Beck writes, "our data suggest that the most effective strategy is one that involves the highest level of police investment."

Criminologist Kenna Quinet's research concerns not what is known, but what isn't--specifically, how many victims serial killers actually kill. In a recent paper published in Homicide Studies, Quinet, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU–Purdue University Indianapolis, writes that lack of reliable data about the "missing missing"--marginalized people such as prostitutes, street hustlers, the homeless, and runaway teens--likely contributes to a significant underestimate of the victims of serial killers.

Recent estimates put the average number of serial killer victims between 67 and 180 people per year. Extrapolating from existing databases of missing persons and of the unidentified and misidentified dead, Quinet projects that the number could range as high as 1,800 victims a year.

"The true number of serial murder victims in the United States is a function of what we know--apprehended killers and strongly suspected serial murder cases—as well as what we do not know--serial murder cases that for one reason or another are off the radar of police, coroners, medical examiners, and other officials," Quinet writes. "We may be undercounting the number of serial murder victims in the United States by discounting what we do not know."

Quinet points out that "medical murders" often go undetected, for example. Many deaths of those in hospitals or nursing homes attributed to "natural causes" may in fact be medical murders, says Quinet, carried out by killers (such as the Indiana nurse Orville Lynn Majors) for some time before being caught.

Like Beck, Quinet believes her research--unsavory as the topic may seem--can assist crime prevention. For example, Quinet's work could encourage police agencies to target resources toward the prevention of serial murders through better protection for marginalized groups.