How an Algorithm Helps Detect Serial Killers

The Murder Accountability Project scours the largest collection of murder records in the country.

November 22, 2017 10:00 am
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Thomas Hargrove has the largest catalog of killings in the country — 751,785 murders carried out since 1976, which is about twenty-seven thousand more than appear in FBI, according to The New YorkerHe has been gathering this data for seven years.

Hargrove wrote a computer code to help him find patterns and statistical anomalies among the more ordinary murders. But he also hopes to round up murderers who haven’t been caught yet. According to The New Yorker, each year, about five thousand people kill someone and are never caught. A percentage of the killers have undoubtedly killed more than once. Hargrove’s code, which he calls a serial-killer detector, can help.

The code, which was created in 2010, operates on a simple algorithm. It forms the basis of the Murder Accountability Project (MAP), which consists of Hargrove, a database, a website and a board of nine members. The algorithm gathers killings that are related by method, place, and time, and by the victim’s sex, explains The New Yorker. It also considers whether the rate of unsolved murders in a city is notable because an uncaught serial killer upends a police department’s percentages.

The FBI believes that less than one percent of the killings each year are done by serial killers. Hargrove, a retired journalist, disagrees and thinks that there are probably around 2,000 serial killers at large in the U.S. He hopes that detectives will eventually start using his algorithm to connect cases themselves, and that MAP will help solve more murders.

Hargrove wants to start a companion site that would track arson. “There’s a link between serial arson and serial killings. A lot of guys start out burning things,” he told The New Yorker.

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