“But he seemed like such a nice guy!” exclaims the neighbor of the serial killer, explaining how she waved to him every morning as he drove to work.
“Where did he work?” the detective asks.
The next-door neighbor does not know. Does it matter? Possibly.
True, in the vast majority of cases, we cannot gauge someone’s level of dangerousness by what they do for a living. However, choice of occupation, assuming in today’s economy that someone actually has a choice, might be linked with personality factors, which may predispose people to behave in certain ways. Some professional choices also reflect underlying beliefs and values, which may predict a willingness to follow the law. And, of course, certain professions, especially those that involve autonomy, flexibility, and one-on-one interaction with strangers, especially late at night, provide easier access to potential victims.
Although clearly, we cannot judge anyone’s character or criminal inclination by their profession alone, researchers have made some interesting observations about potential criminal occupations.
The Dangerous Workplace
As discussed by Michael Arntfield in an article in Neuroscience entitled “The Preferred Jobs of Serial Killers and Psychopaths,”[i] researchers have investigated whether serial killers and people with psychopathic traits are drawn to certain types of careers over others.
We know that serial killers are found within a variety of well-respected professions. Nidal Hasan, who committed the Fort Hood mass shooting in 2009, was an Army psychiatrist. The notorious Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, worked at one point as a police officer—as did cop-turned-cop-killer Christopher Dorner, who was also a United State Navy Reserve officer. And we could list many serial killers and mass murderers who were gainfully employed for years, enveloped with a veneer of status and respectability.
But beyond noting the obvious, that a professional cloak of credibility can obscure potential dangerousness, are homicidally inclined individuals drawn to certain types of occupations? And in the interest of keeping our communities safe, what are they?
When serial killers go to work
Arntfield notes that when studying serial killer employment, some full- and part-time jobs are curiously over-represented. He breaks down such occupations into four categories based on training, turnover, and skill:
Top 3 skilled serial-killer occupations:
1. Aircraft machinist/assembler
2. Shoemaker/repair person
3. Automobile upholsterer
Top 3 semi-skilled serial killer occupations:
1. Forestry worker/arborist
2. Truck driver
3. Warehouse manager
Top 3 unskilled serial killer occupations:
1. General laborer (mover, landscaper)
2. Hotel porter
3. Gas station attendant
Top 3 professional/government serial killer occupations:
1. Police/security official
2. Military personnel
3. Religious official
Because correlation does not equal causation, obviously, holding one of these jobs does not mean someone is or ever will be dangerous in any way (although Arntfield notes that the alleged Golden State Killer held down three of them during his lifetime). Rather, he notes there is something about these jobs that is “inherently appealing to offenders, or that otherwise cultivates the impulses of serial killers-in-waiting and causes them to be curiously over-represented among this rare breed of murderer.”
Some occupations or work schedules provide criminal opportunity if one were so inclined. For example, the graveyard shift involves operating under cover of darkness with fewer potential witnesses. Yet, there is nothing about working this shift that is itself suspicious. Indeed, many of my law school colleagues managed to get through finals week and pass the Bar Exam by studying on breaks during their night shift security work (that earned them the money to pay their tuition).
But criminals still might prefer some occupations over others. Arntfield ends the Neuroscience piece with the observation that even within a changing economy, “certain jobs are always likely to appeal to those people we will later be stunned to learn managed to carry on that type of work while also being monsters in our midst.”
Employing situational awareness instead of stereotyping
More important than guessing where dangerous people work is spotting them, on or off the job. Instead of relying on stereotypes, effective threat assessment involves situational awareness. By working together to keep an eye on each other, we can literally save lives. And hopefully, you will actually get to know your next-door neighbors in the process.