By Bob Whitson
Why should police officers care about criminal psychopaths? Psychopaths comprise only 1% of the general population, but about 20% of inmates and 90% of serial killers. Studies estimated one-third to one-half of violent crimes are committed by psychopaths. Therefore, if you work in the criminal justice system, you will encounter psychopaths and you should understand how they work.
It needs to be emphasized that not all criminal psychopaths are alike. Psychopaths are criminally versatile. Some commit non-violent and white-collar crimes. Others are extremely dangerous and commit horrific crimes. An understanding of psychopathy may prevent police officers and the public from becoming victims and/or help officers solve crimes. In general, psychopaths tend to commit more violent crimes, tend to violate probation or parole, and tend to recidivate quickly.
As a police officer, have you ever responded to a case where a stranger entered a residence to commit a rape? Did you have a series of similar cases? Was there more than one person in the residence during the rape? Did the rape involve abusive behavior? There is a positive correlation between psychopathy and sexual crimes, especially given these scenarios. The suspect is likely a psychopath.
Have you ever covered a case commonly known as a “cat burglar,” where the suspect entered a residence to burglarize, knowing people were home? An assault when there was no obvious provocation? A road rage where there was little to no provocation, especially followed by a high-speed chase with total disregard for the safety of others? Brazen crimes committed during daylight and/or in crowds, like robberies or thefts, where the suspect seemed fearless? The suspect is likely a psychopath.
Have you ever caught a suspect “red-handed” committing a crime, only to have the suspect lie and deny their involvement? Have you ever had a suspect who refused to accept responsibility for their behavior and try to blame the victim? The rape suspect who blames the victim for walking alone at night, or the burglar who blames the homeowner for not locking their doors? A suspect who shows no empathy for their victim, or remorse for the victim’s pain and suffering? The suspect is likely a psychopath.
Caution needs to be used when examining juvenile behavior, depending upon the totality of the circumstances, but psychopathic characteristics will become apparent at an early age. Have you ever responded to a juvenile who abused animals, especially if the behavior involved torture? Have you ever interacted with a juvenile who enjoyed inflicting pain on others in a sadistic manner? The juvenile may be a psychopath.
What is Criminal Psychopathy?
Psychopathy is a behavior disorder listed under the general category of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (DSM-V, 2013). Hare (1991, 2003) created the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), which is an instrument used to measure psychopathy. The PCL-R consist of 20 behaviors and characteristics of psychopathy. Each behavior is scored on a scale of 0, 1, or 2. 0 if the behavior is not present, 1 if it is likely present, and 2 if it is present. The highest possible score is 40. A psychopath will score 30 or higher in North America. Only 1% of the population will score 30 or higher. It is important to look at the composite score of these behaviors, not just one or two behaviors.
The PCL-R includes the following 20 behaviors and characteristics of a psychopath:
(a) superficial charm
(b) a grandiose sense of self-worth
(c) easily bored
(d) pathological lying
(f) lack of remorse or guilt
(g) parasitic lifestyle
(h) shallow affect
(i) callous/lack of empathy
(j) poor behavioral controls)
(k) promiscuous sexual behavior
(l) early behavioral problems
(m) lack of realistic long term goals
(p) failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
(q) short term intimate relationships/marriage
(r) juvenile delinquency
(s) revocation of conditional release
(t) criminal versatility.
Psychopaths are described as people without a conscience. Psychopaths are incapable of feeling normal emotions. For example, they do not feel love. Instead, they think sex is love. They do not understand the concept of loyalty. They are narcistic, selfish, egotistical people that put their welfare before anyone else. They are not team players. They want control over others. They perceive fear differently than others. They are relatively fearless and engage in high-risk, dangerous activity. They may fail to recognize the pain they are inflecting on other people or animals.
Psychopaths are pathological liars and because they do not display the normal emotions of guilt or remorse about lying, they tend to be very convincing. They have a superficial charm that lets them hide their true intention to take advantage of others. Like chameleons, they can adapt to their environment to hide their true personality. The proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. This makes them extremely dangerous. Potential victims let their guard down and psychopaths have no empathy when it comes to taking advantage of others.
Psychopaths are social predators who are constantly looking for potential victims for money or sex. They live off other people like parasites. Psychopaths borrow money from friends or relatives and never repay them. They engage in a variety of crimes to get money, such as dealing illegal drugs, burglaries, robberies, frauds, thefts, and vehicle thefts. They may not work while an intimate partner goes to work and pays the bills.
What Causes Criminal Psychopathy?
Criminal psychopaths appear to be created by a combination of biological (genetic) and environmental (lived experiences) factors. In addition to the biological factors, most people agree criminal psychopaths were abused or exposed to some type of family dysfunction at an early age, which contributes to their criminal behavior.
The human brain is extremely complex. Neuroscientists are trying to unlock the mystery of emotions and different personalities, such as psychopathy (Deming et al, 2020). Dr. Kent Kiehl used Functional MRI to conduct research with inmates in New Mexico. According to Kiehl, fMRI detects and maps changes in blood oxygenation in the brain to identify neural activity when a person is introduced to stimuli. This process can discover which parts of the psychopathic brain are different from non-psychopaths.
Recommendations for Police Officers
HIPPA laws restrict access to medical records in the United States, which makes it difficult for police officers to obtain PCL-R scores. However, trained officers will detect the behaviors and characteristics associated with psychopathy and/or demonstrated at a crime scene.
According to Logan and Hare (2009), officers who interview criminal psychopaths need to understand psychopaths are only concerned about themselves. They want to be in control. They believe they are more important than anyone else. They want to speak with someone who has authority, which makes them feel important. The interview is all about them.
Officers should appeal to their ego and grandiose perspective. Psychopaths will lie, blame others, and show little fear. Therefore, do not immediately challenge the lies or threaten them with threats of harsh punishment, because that will not work.
Psychopaths have a sense of entitlement and they are not loyal. A police officer may be able to negotiate with psychopaths by letting them win some privilege by providing information about other suspects or other crimes. Caution must be used in negotiations since psychopaths tend to be competitive and great manipulators.
Have you had an encounter with a psychopath you want to share? Additional tips for dealing with them? E-mail us at: email@example.com
The information in this article is based on the research of Dr. Robert Hare, Dr. Matt Logan, Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole, and Dr. Kent Kiehl, as well as many other researchers who have studied psychopathy.
Deming, P., Dargis, M., Hass, B., Brook, M., Decety, J., Harenski, C., Kiehl, K., Koenigs, M., & Kosson, D. (2020). Psychopathy is associated with fear-specific reductions in neural activity during affective perspective-talking. NeuroImage. 223 (2020) 117342 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117342
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Hare, R.D. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R): 2nd edition: Technical manual. Tonawanda, NY: Mental Health Systems.
Kiehl, K. & Hoffman, M. (2011). The criminal psychopath: History, neuroscience, treatment, and economics. Jurimetrics. (51: 355-397.
Logan, M., & Hare, R.D. (2009). Criminal psychopathy: An introduction for police. In M. St-Yves & M. Tanguary (Eds.), Psychology of Criminal Investigations: The Search For Truth (pp. 359-405). Cowansville, Quebec: Editionsyvonblais.
O’Toole, M. (2007). Psychopathy as a behavior classification system for violent and serial crimes. In H. Herve, & J.C. Yuille (Eds), The Psychopath: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 301-325). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Whitson, R. (2012). Why JonBenet Ramsey was murdered by a sadistic psychopath – not her parents. North Charleston, SC. Createspace. (Amazon).