Sniper search: a communication strategy

A man was fatally shot Tuesday at a Maryland bus stop, as police continue to seek contact with the killer.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the sniper investigation grinds on, the issue of communication among the shooter, the police, and the media has emerged as one of the most intriguing yet exasperating facets of the case.

Tuesday morning's fatal shooting, in which the sniper returned to what is considered "home turf" after some experts said he was moving farther afield, seemed to confirm that the bullets themselves have become a perverse form of discourse.

Police, meanwhile, have fiercely tried to protect every possibility of communication with the shooter in the hopes that it may help solve the case. In a case so difficult, even a few moments of contact could be key.

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Most serial killers don't communicate. When they do, it can help break the case. It can also add to public hype and frustration.

With hopes for a break raised one day and dashed the next, a focus on "messages" from the shooter is posing complicated challenges for the press as well as the police.

"The media are not just sitting off to the side reporting this case. They are an active member of this complex dynamic between perpetrator, victim, and law enforcement, and how they conduct themselves in that mix will impact how the outcome plays out," says Jerrold Post, a psychology expert at George Washington University and a former CIA profiler.

In the media frenzy surrounding this case, it's been difficult for the police to respond to the killer's overtures. And leaks and sometimes fabulous speculation on the motives or character of the killer that puffed up the 24/7 coverage of this case have not helped, say some experts.

The flip side of that criticism, however, is that the public is hungry for answers about the killer.

Still, each new attack appeared to confirm a grim pattern: that serial shooters pay close attention to what is said about them. Fighting words and speculation, whatever their source, appeared to trigger more violence.

When police said the schools were safe, the next target was a school. When the press reported that the shooter was working within a certain geographic range, he moved outside it. When the experts speculated that he had moved outside that range to avoid Pentagon spy planes, the next shot was back in the area of the first killings, and so on.

That's why both the police and the news media appear to be rethinking how they work this case. Last week, the police tried to bring down the saturation level of coverage by limiting press briefings to one a day, or when there was something to report.

At the same time, news outlets (with some exceptions) began curbing some of the speculation and harsh words for the sniper. After the most recent shooting, at a commuter bus stop yesterday in Rockville, CNN anchors said they would not speculate on the shooter's motives.

FROM the first hours after media sound trucks, satellite dishes, and crews converged on police headquarters here in Rockville, Md., investigators have tried to control the signals going to the killer.

While police officials were measured and respectful in their references to the sniper, many of those designated as experts in the news media (some with inflated resumes) were not. Early commentary on this case includes speculation that the sniper is a loser, a coward, a lowlife, or not such a good shot after all.

"The ... speculation about him psychologically – much of which is quite negative – cannot be anything but anger producing, leading to an 'I'll show them' kind of feeling," says Mr. Post.

After the discovery of a note at the site of a shooting in Ashland, Va., Chief Charles Moose of the Montgomery County Police Department, who is leading this investigation, began appealing directly to the shooter. On Sunday, he read a carefully worded message on air calling on "the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa [Steakhouse] last night" to "call us at the number you provided." He called on the news media to carry this message "clearly" and "often."

Experts say it's a high-risk strategy, and still largely unexplored in law enforcement. Occasionally, serial killers have left messages for the police, ranging from encrypted letters and poems to lipstick scrawled on a mirror. Not many were caught as a result of these messages, but experts say that may be because they are not shared with the public early enough to be useful

The conventional police practice is to keep such communications secret, so they can sift through the many false messages that occur during serial murder cases. But release of such information can also tip off witnesses who may know the killer. The release of the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto led to the capture of Theodore Kaczynski, after his brother saw the document in the press and contacted police.

"This subset of killers who do communicate want to be caught, but you've got to keep the communication going," says Tomas Guillen of Seattle University, coauthor of "The Search for the Green River Killer."

"The way police have handled such communiqués in the past has been to hold them, until they become stale," he says. "Police should be more open about sharing such messages with the public."

But playing out this strategy in public could also undermine public confidence in the investigation, say others, commenting on the Washington case.

"[The killer] enjoys playing a cat and mouse game with the police, and his messages to the police are simply part of that game, which he appears to be winning," says Jack Levin, a crime expert at Northeastern University. "He's controlling the shots, literally."

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