Psychopaths hard to nab

Mar 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 5
By Marianne Meadahl

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Sarah Hunter's study found criminals with higher psychopathic tendencies were nearly twice as mobile as criminals in the general population. The study, done for an honours undergraduate degree, was supervised by James Hemphill (right), a psychologist at Burnaby's youth forensic psychiatric services, and SFU's Gail Anderson.

Psychopathic criminals are not only dangerous, they're highly mobile, according to results of an SFU psychology study presented at the Western Society of Criminology conference in Vancouver on Feb. 21.

The study found criminals with higher psychopathic tendencies were nearly twice as mobile as criminals in the general population, committing crimes in 8.3 different cities and 2.6 different provinces, compared to 4.7 different cities and 1.5 provinces for non-psychopaths.

Their high level of mobility makes efforts to nab such criminals that much harder, says Sarah Hunter, who undertook the study for an honours undergraduate degree. She assessed the relationship between the psychopathy and geographic mobility of 311 male federal offenders serving two years or more at Mission medium security penitentiary.
Most had criminal records stretching back a few decades, while some records date back to the late 1950s.

The offenders' psychopathic profiles were determined using the Hare psychopathy checklist, developed by UBC professor emeritus Robert Hare, a pioneer in psychopathic research.

The mobility patterns were determined by examining where crimes were committed and the distance between them.

Psychopaths are typically noted as being psychologically anti-social and unstable, traits which tend to be associated with high mobility, notes James Hemphill, a psychologist at Burnaby's youth forensic psychiatric services, who supervised Hunter's work with associate criminology professor Gail Anderson. He says the findings were anticipated, and highlight the need for closer tracking of criminals with high psychopathic characteristics. “In Canada, investigators can draw information on criminals from a central database, but in these cases it's clear that other sources of tracking beyond criminal records would be useful,” says Hemphill, who came to SFU on a postdoctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 1998 and is currently an adjunct professor in psychology.

Hunter agrees that the findings have implications for both the system and crime victims and that closer tracking is necessary. “The combination of psychopathy and mobility may hamper criminal investigations, while it also widens geographical areas for victims,” says Hunter, who now works for the North Vancouver RCMP's crisis intervention unit.

The conference showcased the research of more than 20 former and current SFU students - including SFU alumnus Kim Rossmo, who is now research director of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. It also featured keynote addresses by several faculty in the school of criminology, including organizers Neil Boyd and Paul Brantingham. During the conference, Brantingham was also recognized for his outstanding service to the society, which has members from the U.S. and Canada.

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