Serial Killings Are Rare, but Increasing Sharply Experts Say Rise Parallels Increase in Dysfunctional Families, Media Images of Violence, Child Abuse, and Sexual Permissiveness

Article excerpt

SERIAL killings like the ones generating headlines out of Milwaukee the past two weeks are a relatively rare form of murder, say criminologists.

But serial killings are on the rise, and all-too-common social and cultural problems are believed to be a factor in what drives human beings to this violent extreme, they say.

An understanding of the underlying meaning of the killings to the offenders themselves is key to solving murders as well as preventing them, say criminologists. Trying to make sense of the apparently senseless, to understand the killers, they say, will help police shorten the killers' careers if not prevent them altogether.

"We can't relegate the whole thing to evil; to inhumanity. We have to think about the themes that excite (the serial killer)," explains Candice Skrapec, a City University of New York criminal psychologist whose research involves extensive interviews with people incarcerated for serial killings.

The consensus among experts in the field is that it is not coincidental that a sudden upturn in the late 1970s of serial killings in the United States - as well as other violent crimes - paralleled increases in dysfunctional families, reported child abuse, media images of violence, and sexual and psychological permissiveness. The social milieu plays no small part in the escalation of serial killings, experts suggest. Symptom of larger problem

While there is scientistic evidence that some evidence of a genetic predisposition to such criminal behavior, says Ms. Skrapec, social conditions such as a healthy family setting "can override biology."

"If indeed there is a bona fide increase in family dysfunction then, yes, it would be consistent with many (forms of violence) like gangs as well as serial murders," says Skrapec. "Serial murder is just one symptom (of a larger problem)."

FBI analysts say that the number of serial murders has never been as high as it is now. In 1976, just 8.5 percent of all US murders had unknown motives (a category which includes, but is not exclusively comprised of, serial killings), FBI data show. That figure had risen dramatically to 23.7 percent of all murders in 1989.

The numbers of known mass murderers shows the increase more conclusively, says Ron Holmes, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville's Southern Police Institute and the author of several books on serial killings.

Data Dr. Holmes has compiled show that between 1900 and 1970 there were 28 known mass murderers with 742 victims among them. Meanwhile, in just the decade of the 1970s there were 29 known mass murderers with 906 victims. And in the 1980s there were 47 known serial killers with 670 victims.

His studies show that there were varied motives for these murders in the early part of the century - including some committed for material gain - but that today's serial killings are largely sexually oriented. And while men and women were equally likely to be mass murder victims then, he says, the majority of today's victims are women and children. …