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Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
Analysis: Psychology of the sniper
Officers looking for sniper evidence
The sniper may have left the clue that will reveal him
Professor David Canter

When the Washington sniper returned to the area of his early attacks, it was thought that this must be a desire to taunt the police.

Police officer by a roadblock
Lines of investigation have apparently gone nowhere yet
But it is easier to see this as just an indication that he was familiar with that area.

His actions certainly show an obvious familiarity with the opportunities presented by a stationary bus for a passive, unsuspecting victim.

His escape was also so well organised that even in this vigilant climate he could get away.

Even though he was well aware of the area, he now took the precaution of offending in the dark when it was easier to escape unseen.


To kill and escape as soon as possible will be paramount in his thinking, heightening the frisson he gets from offending under the noses of the police

Familiarity comes from local knowledge and the opportunity to reconnoitre locations before anything untoward is anticipated.

It is not uncommon for offenders to return to a well-known locality after forays away from home - especially once the chase has moved to the area of later crimes and the guard has slipped a little in the initial hunting ground.

To kill and escape as soon as possible will be paramount in his thinking, heightening the frisson he gets from offending under the noses of the police.

Unusual taunts

Taunting the police directly - in the form of direct communication - is extremely unusual outside of the annals of fiction.

Many such events are more often produced by others who want to draw attention to themselves than by the killers.


These crimes emerge out of anger and frustration and a feeling of being outside of society

There must be suspicion around the notes left at the crime scenes.

We only know what the police filter through to the media and they may not be sure themselves that it is indeed the sniper communicating.

That money is now being demanded is most unusual.

These crimes emerge out of anger and frustration and a feeling of being outside of society.

Police Chief Charles Moose
Chief Moose believes the killer is interested in more than violence
It is very late in the day to start demanding money.

In the careful and controlled way that has become his trademark, Chief Moose indicated that he thought the sniper was about more than violence.

If this is true, it is a development in the killer's own assessment of himself.

Quest for motives

The belief that he is set on a battle against the authorities owes more to the need we all have to make a convincing narrative out of this meaningless waste of life, hence the quest for motives.

The feeling that any of us could become the target for the next shot and can have no way of preventing it, as illogical as this calculation of the odds is, makes us search for sense in this senseless pattern.

A petrol station uses a tarpaulin to shield its customers from view
The fear that anyone could be next, drives us to search for the sniper's reasons
That search leads us to grab at the dominant story lines that litter our television screens.

The aberrant villain becomes an intelligent anti-hero taking on forces of good.

But there is no indication that the sniper sees himself like that or that others in the past have.

They become increasingly aware of opportunities with every successful attack.

What may have started out as a curious shooting through a shop window and then a narrow escape when killing quickly becomes ever more a way of life.

As with other parts of life, he is learning as he goes along.

Killings 'not random'

The apparent randomness of his actions is confused by the search for motive.

The killings are not random.


Rationality in carrying out the act does not necessarily mean there is a clear rationale for why he would do it

The geographical pattern shows thought has gone into the selection of locations rather than victims but also fits in with the determination and skill with which the sniper has carried out his killings.

However, such rationality in carrying out the act does not necessarily mean there is a clear rationale for why he would do it.

Previous notorious examples show how arbitrary and meaningless such actions can be.

The police will have noted that the offences occur in the morning or evening rush hours when there are plenty of victims, and that the offender is able to slip into anonymity.

'Must be a reason'

He must have a reason for being there at those times.

An empty playground
The sniper has killed in busy rush hours, but many people are now staying inside
All that comes from the sniper's local contact and knowledge.

But he is a human being and he will make or has already made mistakes.

Effective police work will eventually find him and this will be guided by the knowledge that he has a reason for being in Montgomery County.

A reason so strong that he returned there once he thought he could get away with it.

Professor David Canter is the director of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool, UK


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23 Oct 02 | Americas
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