Dr. Casey Jordan, Criminologist - Attorney

3 Questions, 3 Answers

March, 2004  -- Yankee Magazine - By Cindy Anderson

In the March Issue of Yankee, we interviewed Casey Jordan, a professor of justice and law at Western Connecticut State University who has provided commentary for more than 200 media venues, including the New York Times, NBC News, and 20/20.  During the October 2002 Washington D.C. –area sniper killings, she served as CNN’s in-house criminologist during the October 2002 D.C. –area sniper killings.  She spoke with Yankee at Obsidium, her Ansonia, Connecticut, antiques store, which she calls “the beauty in my life that balances out the ugliness.”

During the D.C.-area sniper case you provided more than 80 live commentaries.  What were those weeks like?

I was staying in a hotel a hundred feet from CNN, and if the phone in my room rang, it meant someone else had been shot.  Between commentaries I kept going back to my books in an effort to piece things together.  I didn’t want to go out on a limb with predictions, but at the same time you grasp at anything that could be helpful from the literature.  I would find myself infuriated when other commentators would go off on tangents and hypothesize about what was going on in the killers’ heads.  Obviously we had no idea.  Everyone said it must have been exciting.  Of course, some part of it probably fed my suppressed anchorwoman, but you’re on TV because someone’s been shot.  After a while you’d rather just go home and know that they’ve been caught. 

You’ve said serial killers use socially unacceptable means to get what they believe they’re entitled to.  What do you mean by that?

“Strain” is a theory of crime in which you have a socially acceptable reality or goal that you’re pursuing, and through what you believe is no fault of your own you’re being denied access to that goal.  Say you were born middle class and white, pretty intelligent, and relatively good-looking – then everything should be handed to you, because that’s the way it’s historically been.  But now you have women taking your job, or minorities, and you’re out there in a kind of low-grade fever going, This isn’t fair.  Life is kicking me in the teeth and it’s someone else’s fault.  I should be boss, or She should find me attractive.  It’s all subterranean; most people aren’t actually in touch with these thoughts.  But take a person who doesn’t have good coping mechanisms, for whom ordinary life is a struggle, and they find themselves in a state of anomie, where you think you’re doing things right, but nothing’s going right.  If you match that with the right personality disorder, with someone who has deep insecurity, sexual dysfunction, and a need for power and control – it’s kind of like when all tumblers of the lock fit together and allow the key to turn.  Suddenly you’ve created an environment that allows a person to kill and get away with it and realize they enjoyed it.  Most serialists don’t plan on becoming serial killers when they start.   They kill and they decide they liked it and it’s something they’d like to do again.  They blossom. 

In your criminology class at WCSU, the students are most intrigued by the unit on serial killers.  In fact, you’ve called the national appetite for information on serial killings “overwhelming.”  What is the root of this?

Crime and serial killing in particular are extraordinarily American phenomena.  If you look at countries that are similar to us in terms of quality of life and values, none of them has the problem with crime that we do.  We are a nation that doesn’t just advocate violence, we normalize it.  Everyone goes after the European countries for having nudity on television or Page Three girls in the tabloids in England, and the British will look at us and say, But you show Rambo videos to kids in which 682 Vietnamese children get killed, and you’re worried about a bare-breasted woman on Page Three?

The fact of the matter is that we are extremely hypocritical.  We are a country based on the dream that you can be anything you want and do anything you want.  The human cost of this is violence, because people will pursue what makes them happy, and if their happiness is based on the thrill of killing or raping then they believe at some very deep level that they have the right to do that until they get caught. 

Most criminologists are men.  How does being a woman alter your perspective?

I learned a long time ago that for a crime to touch my heart was not a bad thing.  Because of the way we’re socialized, I think it’s more permissible for women to be interested not just in criminology but in victimology,  which is truly its first cousin.  To me there’s no point in studying offenders if you forget to include the human cost of what they do.  That’s why I can be so critical of the media.  You can study crime without sensationalizing it.  It’s just a matter of taking responsibility and giving equal time to the damage the criminals have done.

You’ve said you detest the word profile.  Why is that?

The word has come to be construed as something totally new.  It’s been Hollywood-ized.  If  you create a profile you practice a form of criminology called criminal behavior systems, and it’s not glamorous stuff.  It’s Boolean logic.  If, the, else.  You don’t walk into a room and say, Look for someone in a blue double-breasted vest.  All these students from Clarice Sterling [Silence of the Lambs] onward were coming to me and saying, I want to be a profiler.  I would sit them down and ask, What do you mean?  And they would say, I want to work for the FBI.  How many people do you think are profilers for the FBI?  Maybe 15.  And they tend to be old white men who’ve been there for 20 years.  Profiling is not going to crime scenes and getting intuitive feelings.  It’s sitting at a desk going through stacks of paper, not much different from actuarial work, sadly.  It can be that boring.  Profiling is useful for generating preventive policy, but it’s almost never used to actually solve crimes.   That’s a TV myth.  Most criminals don’t get caught because of the profilers, but because they screwed up. 

You’re a professor who does research and teaches.  Do you ever feel that going from scholar to sound bites trivializes what you do?

It can be very frustrating.  You’ll have a five-minute explanation and you have to mash it down to 30 seconds so they can go to a commercial.  There’ve been times when I’ve said something that’s ended up making me look like an idiot.  I hope I’ve improved with practice.  What you try to do is start with a conclusion and give as much as you can of your reasoning to back it up.   But inevitably they ask, Why would he do it? And there aren’t enough days in the year to answer a question like that.

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