Thomas Hargrove, a retired investigative journalist, and former White House correspondent created the website Murder data.org, he claims that this site can detect Serial killers. In 2015, he founded the non-profit Murder Accountability Project to monitor unsolved homicides throughout the United States of America. Hargrove essentially created an algorithm that uses FBI homicide data to classify clusters of murders with a high likelihood of involving serial killings. Whilst working as a national correspondent for Howard News Service, Hargrove co-founded the Scripps Survey Research Centre and collaborated with Prof. Guido H. of Ohio University on a two-volume encyclopaedia. The 21st Century Voter: Who Votes, How They Vote and Why They Vote (ABC-CLIO. 07 October 2020)
While Hargrove’s Crime Solving Algorithm may seem revolutionary, the concept of collecting data and developing a mathematical solution to solve cases has a long history. Informal criminal profiling dates to the 1880’s, when two physicians, George Phillips and Thomas Bond, used crime scene clues to predict the persona of British serial killer Jack the Ripper.(jchasenovelist 2018) Fast forward to the 1970’s and John Douglas was the pioneer of criminal profiling. When Douglas was collecting data on convicted serial killers, society questioned his methods, and, like Hargrove, he experienced criticism from police forces and yearned for the exchange of criminal information. Douglas, a former FBI agent, tells his story in an autobiographical book called Mindhunter, which is now a critically acclaimed Netflix series. Douglas reveals how he uses his data to aid in murder investigations by getting into the brains of some of the world’s most heinous serial killers. (Interesting 2020)
Every homicide warrior I have described is basically collecting data in order to make predictions and construct a narrative. However, unlike his predecessors, Hargrove is using a large collection of open-source data, such as the Supplementary Homicide Report SHR (1976-present), the Uniform Crime Report UCR (both of these criminal files have been reported to the justice department), and Hargrove’s own investigative research (information that was not updated and sent to the justice department) and combines these reports into aggregate data before utilizing computer-assisted techniques to develop an algorithm to counter an investigative phenomenon known as “Linkage Blindness”. (Sullivan 2009)This is a term that refers to failure of law enforcement to communicate or exchange information in a way that links unsolved crimes.
“the only way a murder is linked to a particular offender in the United States is if the two investigators sit together by the water cooler and chat about their cases and find commonalities.” Hargrove(TEDx Talks 2019)
Hargrove could only demonstrate the effectiveness of an algorithm if it detected suspected serial killers. After years of research, He discovered ‘Cluster Analysis’ which can classify clusters of unsolved murders that are connected by the cause, location, and time of the murder, as well as the gender of the victim.(Thomas Hargrove 2017b) Hargrove then converted the data into a nine-digit number, which is basically a Dewey decimal system of death. (this system was devised by Melvil Dewey as a method of categorizing books It is referred to as “decimal” because it employs numbers to the right of the decimal point (for more detail, click here).
While learning Hargrove’s algorithm, I believe it is critical to understand his own collective data. He is attempting to update records that local police departments should be reviewing, and he is using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain details on murders that local police departments have not reported or modified in SHR and UCR reports. According to Hargrove’s website, the murders published in muderdata.org are more complete than the FBI’s “Violent Criminal Apprehension Program”-ViCAP database. In comparison to ViCAP, victims’ names are not reported to the SHR, but the month, year, demographic characteristics, and reporting agency are, which is usually enough information to request the victim’s identity from local police.
Another problem Hargrove discovered is that between 5% to 10% of unsolved cases were later solved, and that the original SHR file had not been updated. As a result, the ‘Clearance rate’ can be skewed, and Hargrove has gone into each case to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible. Despite these challenges, the SHR data offers valuable information on the actual type of killing, such as knife, strangulation, or drowning. (Thomas Hargrove 2017a)
Hargrove explores his theory and describes how the notorious JonBenét Ramsey (a child murder) can be attributed to a serial killer by looking at the years around the case and how the algorithm can provide useful insights into a possible lead. With this detail, I am left wondering why Hargrove’s work is not taken more seriously, particularly in cold cases.
With his way of thinking and use of computer assisted techniques, I believe Hargrove was ahead of his time, and as newer technology emerges and the digital generation joins the police force, I believe we will see his methodology jump leaps and bounds into the framework of the justice system, especially with the emergence of Covid-19, and societies renowned interest and trust in open-source digital data.
The software is non-profit and runs on donations, and the site’s lack of design detail may be attributed to this. I am concerned about the bounce rate of the website because I believe the architecture does not cater to Hargrove’s audience. It would be wonderful if a talented program designer revamped the platform to make it more interactive and user-friendly. I expect that the next generation of police officers will be more inclined to use this methodology to make a hypothesis on weather serial killers are active in their city and will then result in bringing new freshness to the Murder data.org site.
However, Hargrove’s most difficult battle, in my opinion, is overcoming “linkage blindness” and addressing unresolved administrative problems, which can only be resolved with the assistance of the Justice Department.
Police departments need to be reprimanded for not updating justice department files, Hargrove’s data revealed a police department’s worst nightmare: at least 220,000 unsolved murders in the United States since 1980 with Serial killers being responsible for an estimated 2,000 of those murders.
Given that the police force ethos is to protect the innocent at all costs, but the cost of data appears to be too high.
‘We can see where unreported murders are and we go to police departments and say, “You must start reporting data.” I am going to do what it takes to start solving murder. That is. our dream. And that is why we try to make homicide data as available as possible.’’ Hargrove
What I admire most about this computer-assisted technique is Hargrove’s persistence and belief in his Open access project; like digital activists and campaigners for digital dissemination, he believes that knowledge sharing could only make the world a better and safer place.
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