Sadly, this country has experienced over the last 20 years a rise in
sensational, media-bloated shootings, all of which have left communities
grieving and wondering why – why would anyone
do such a horrible, evil thing? Even worse, we’ve become almost accustomed to
the tragedies, as if accepting of their eventualities, as if we’re unsurprised
that people exist who can walk into a movie theater and murder a dozen
We accept that there is something psychologically wrong with the killers, but what goes on their heads intrigues us while it repels. It is because of this that we turn to forensic psychologists now more than ever, hoping their expertise and ability to delve into the psyche of truly disturbed people will offer us clues on how to spot a potential murderer and stop them, before something like the Aurora shooting happens again.
Forensic Psychologists: A Career Profile
Forensic psychologists are specifically trained psychologists who specialize in criminal investigation and the law. While the field actually encompasses surprising issues like custody disputes, insurance claims and lawsuits, a population among forensic psychologists does pursue criminal profiling while working with law enforcement and/or legal personnel. Forensic psychologists’ tasks include competency evaluations, recommending sentences, testifying in court cases and evaluating child custody cases.
One of the things that forensic psychologists do – which, thanks to popular media, both scripted and real, has become the popular conception of their job – is create criminal profiles, as well as give their expert opinion whether or not a suspect is psychologically competent to face charges and/or stand trial. This is, of course, a small and very specific aspect of forensic psychology, but it’s both fascinating and essential.
Interested candidates must start with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. (Thanks to the technology of today, nontraditional students can consider pursuing their initial psychology degree online, with a wide variety of internet-based programs.) A career in forensic psychology absolutely requires a doctoral degree; some schools offer programs with a forensic focus and will often provide the student with courses in both psychology and law. Graduate work can take between five to seven years to complete. On top of that, years of experience are necessary before the candidate should feel ready to apply for American Board of Forensic Psychology certification.
The forensic psychologist salary varies based on experience. Those just starting out can expect something in the range of $40,000-50,000. What’s incredible about the field is that those in the upper echelons of earning command yearly salaries of almost $120,000. Those forensic psychologists who work independently as consultants (who can, therefore, set their own rate) can expect the higher pay.
What Forensic Psychology Has to Say about Mass Shooters
While there is no definitive answer for why a person will carefully plan out an attack to murder innocent people, forensic psychologists have studied past cases and weighed in with their insight.
Some have articulated groups especially at risk based on personality traits. They cite delusional individuals, whose beliefs, though proven wrong, become their own personal truths; narcissists, who care little for others and will do whatever they must to obtain their own goals; and the severely depressed and suicidal, those who despair so deeply of living that they can be driven to take others down with them, fueled in part by their feelings of anger and self-justification at wrongs done to them.
This anger can come out in a few different ways. Some killers specifically target those who have “wronged” them – a boss who fired them or a woman who rejected them. Others will target a “representative” group: a poor student might shoot at a group of wealthy ones, even if none of them ever actually ridiculed him or her. Forensic psychologists say that a third type, the kind that targets indiscriminately, like James Holmes, the accused shooter in Aurora, CO, is the least common and the most difficult to understand – certainly the most difficult for the public to comprehend.
Forensic psychologists say that certain behaviors may offer clues: increasing interest in weapons or past mass murderers, violent fantasies or even expressed threats, however subtle or direct. What is clear is that forensic psychologists and law enforcers can only do so much. It’s a frightening truth of our time that we must be aware of these signs and symptoms and ready to speak up when someone makes us uneasy.
David Michaels is a contributing writer and psychology major in his senior year of college. He hopes one day to own his own practice as a child psychologist.