Opinion

The Idaho Murder Suspect Studied Criminology. That Is Not a Crime.

Crime is a constant in American life. We see it portrayed on television and in films, see it debated in the media and by politicians, and unfortunately some of us experience it in our lives.

Criminology, the scientific study of the causes, impact and prevention of crime, is, by contrast, a little-known field. While it is a relatively young discipline, it has become a fast-growing academic field, with American colleges awarding over 11,000 degrees in criminology during the 2020-21 school year alone.

With the recent murders of four young students at the University of Idaho and the arrest of a suspect, Bryan Kohberger, a Ph.D. student in criminology at Washington State University, questions have been raised about his choice of educational discipline — and whether his decision to research the psychology of criminal decision-making may have been some kind of omen.

Was Mr. Kohberger studying criminology to learn how to commit a crime? There are thousands of criminologists in the United States, and I’m not aware of a single one who has ever been accused of committing a heinous crime like this.

As a professor of criminology and a former F.B.I. special agent, I am frequently surprised by the misperceptions of what criminologists study and what we train our students to do. Many people assume that criminologists are experts in profiling serial killers, forensic analysis, solving cold cases and other “true crime” topics. While we are often asked to opine on high-profile crimes because of our expertise in criminal behavior and the workings of the criminal justice system, most criminologists’ work focuses on developing and testing theories of criminal behavior and applying rigorous scientific methods to develop evidence-based policies and programs for the police, prosecutors, social workers and other criminal justice practitioners to use to better prevent and reduce crime.

In other words, our field is dedicated to developing better policies and practices to prevent crime. It is not focused on serial killers or forensics, like most people may think.

If Mr. Kohberger was trying to improve his ability to commit or get away with the killings he is accused of, there were easier and better ways to do so than to spend tens of thousands of dollars, go through years of advanced studies and conduct sophisticated research required for a doctoral degree in criminology. Also, if he did commit these crimes, ostensibly helped by his criminological research, why were such basic mistakes made, such as, according to a police affidavit, leaving behind clues including a knife sheath with his DNA at the crime scene and cellphone tower records?

Mr. Kohberger’s interest in criminal decision-making is another red herring. A study I recently conducted on the perceived risk of being caught after committing a crime showed that aspiring criminologists, such as Mr. Kohberger, are actually poor judges of true apprehension risk, worse than the general public, jail inmates and prolific violent offenders. In fact, criminology students routinely overestimate the risk of apprehension by large margins as compared with actual risk, likely contributing to their tendency to not engage in crime. If criminologists had insight into how to offend more effectively, evade law enforcement or otherwise reduce the risk of being caught for a serious crime, the data from criminology students would indicate as such. But that just isn’t the case.

Some of the confusion around the study of criminology, I believe, is rooted in the “‘C.S.I.’ effect”: the unrealistic expectation of forensics and criminal investigations that became widespread after the “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation” television series became popular in the early 2000s. Despite “C.S.I.” being science fiction — one forensic scientist has estimated that 40 percent of the science depicted on the show is completely made up — research shows that the showhas an impact on how the public perceives crime and forensics, the evidence jurors expect to see in order to deliver a guilty verdict in court, how the police and prosecutors handle cases and even how offenders attempt to cover up their crimes.

The “C.S.I.” effect is exemplified in a 2008 National Institute of Justice publication in which a juror complained that the police did not do a thorough job because “they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints” and a prosecutor lamented that jurors expect “the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.” Other television shows, such as “Criminal Minds” and “Mindhunter,” have similarly led the public to believe that criminologists are all criminal profilers when in reality profilers are an extremely small segment of the larger discipline. The gap between fact and fiction seems to have expanded to have an impact on public perceptions of criminology now, too.

If anything, criminology is one of the reasons we’ve had so many breakthroughs that have led to declines in rates of both crime and incarceration, innovation in policing and crime prevention, and a reduction in systemic disparities in the criminal justice system.

While I valued my experience as a special agent in the F.B.I., I quickly realized that crime was hardly affected by law enforcement’s reactive efforts, and only by studying the causes of crime, and proactively intervening on them, could I make a real change in the world. This is what criminologists like myself aim to do every day.

One thing I’ve learned through more than a decade of research and my time in the F.B.I. is that some people are capable of doing horrible things that most of us could never stomach. This almost never has anything to do with their chosen field of study, employment, marital status, intellect or many other features that society often cites to make sense of why certain people do heinous things.

We try to make sense of tragedy because we often feel that doing so will allow us to regain control in our lives and prevent future tragedy from occurring to us. In this case, it might make us feel safer to believe that something overt, such as someone’s field of study, is a red flag for extreme violence, as opposed to, say, a personality feature that is difficult to detect. This leads us to think that we can identify a person with an aptitude to commit such a crime and prevent the individual from victimizing us.

The field of criminology aims to identify the complex latent risk factors for crime and develop more effective and efficient ways to address them. As we learn more about Bryan Kohberger in the coming months, we will be confronted by the complex set of factors that could have contributed to him allegedly committing these crimes. This is the exact reason we need criminology — to study these factors and develop responsive interventions and prevention strategies so we can stop more crimes from occurring in the future.

Bryanna Fox is an associate professor in the criminology department at the University of South Florida, a co-director of the U.S.F. Center for Justice Research & Policy, and a former F.B.I. special agent.

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