Wed | Sep 19, 2018

Light on violence | Brain of a repeat killer

Published:Monday | January 30, 2017 | 12:00 AMHerbert Gayle


Our objective here is to respond to four critical questions:

- Definition: Who is a repeat killer?

- Frequency: How popular are they in our inner cities?

- Threat: How dangerous are they?

- Neurological issue: Is something likely to be wrong with their brains?

Between 2004 and 2014, as part of a large study on multiple murderers, I managed to convince 17 dons or gang leaders with power over 28 inner-city communities in Jamaica to allow me to profile the young men under their influence. I have done the same in Trinidad and Belize. The 28 Jamaican inner-city communities were broken down into 86 districts or corners. In each district a single PEER (participatory ethnographic evaluation research) session was conducted in which three to five young men would sit with me and profile each young male between the ages of 15 and 34 (the combatant years). PEER involves using groups of persons to provide information about their peers through 'reasonings' or group discussions. Over the period, we profiled 2,316 inner-city young men. The profiles included: 1) their caregivers, 2) involvement in killing (how many, if so), and 3) reasons for the killing (if so).

A repeat killer is a person who has killed more than once. Three categories of this group are well-documented: mass murderers, defined by the FBI (2005) as persons who kill four or more persons in a single event in a single location with no emotional cooling-off period in between; spree killers, who kill three or more persons but in different locations; and serial killers, who meticulously plan and execute a series of murders (three or more) in singular kills in various locations. For those of us who study gangs, these three categories are grossly inadequate to describe the feuding situations where youth kill more than one person.

Only six per cent of the males between the ages of 15 and 34 years in the study had killed anyone (compared to 5.5 in Belize and 4.9 in Trinidad). While these statistics suggest that it is unfair to view all inner-city males as murderers or potential murderers, one killer in every 16 of the combatant age (15-34 years) is worth the attention of national security and social scientists.

Of those who had killed someone, almost two-thirds had done so only once. Nonetheless, of the 2,316 young men studied, 2.1 per cent could be described as 'multicidal' or repeat killers. Of the repeat killers, we found a small group that killed 'professionally' (defined as three or more kills). They made up a mere 0.5 per cent (1/200) of the study. We shall call these young men 'shottas' (as the youth in the communities describe them), most of whom kill on command or as part of a contract. These young men are treated differently from the ones who have killed twice who are mostly described by the PEER groups as 'soldiers' or 'bad bwoy'.




Repeat killers are dangerous! While they represented only 2.1 per cent of the inner-city males interviewed between 2004 and 2014 as part of a large study on multiple murderers, they accounted for 70.5 per cent of all the murders counted by PEER (participatory ethnographic evaluation research) groups in 86 districts throughout 28 inner-city communities.

According to data from the National Intelligence Bureau (2000-2014), more than 80 per cent of the country's murders are committed in urban centres, especially within the parishes of Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine, Clarendon and St James. If 70.5 per cent of the murders committed by the youth of the communities studied were done by repeat killers, and more than 80 per cent of the country's murders are committed in urban centres, the calculations from these data support reports from some urban police divisions that repeat offenders account for over a half of the murders they have to address. Hence, we can say that the Jamaica Constabulary Force's estimates published November 15, 2015, in The Gleaner are correct.

Note that the threat gets worse when we focus on the group described as 'shottas': though they represented a mere 0.5 per cent (1/200) of the youth studied, they accounted for almost a half (47.2 per cent) of all the murders recalled by the young men. The calculations show that on average, one of these 'career killers' accounted for the deaths of 13 persons. Given that inner-city youth account for about 70 per cent of the country's murders, this picture implies that such a small group could be responsible for a third of the country's murders.

'Shottas' are somewhat different from other killers. All the killers focused their attention on competing gangs or communities (inter-community feud); however, the 'shottas' were less likely to focus on killing their neighbours (intra-community feud). They have very little to prove as they are immensely feared by all on their corners. In fact, most of their internal kills were described by the PEER youth as 'internal cleansing' on behalf of the don. Nonetheless, as professional killers they are called upon to hunt the 'big cheddar' or take the greatest risks, and this implies being twice more likely to kill persons outside their warring boundaries. In fact, of the eight contract hits on upper-middle-class and middle-class victims found in the study, seven were done by 'shottas'.




Shottas represent an extreme case of persons who have killed or are likely to kill.

In my long-term study (since 1994) of more than 200 repeat killers, shottas have always displayed signs of psychopathy - a personality disorder characterised by consistent antisocial behaviour, lack of empathy, bold or rash egotistic traits, with extreme manipulative abilities. In simple terms, they are low on feelings for others, but high on getting what they want at any cost. Having psychopathic characteristics is not completely bad. In fact, neuroscientists often remind us that one per cent of all humans have variations of these combined characteristics. Some scientists have even suggested that the species needs these selfish achievers; and that we actually admire many of them: ruthless race car drivers, brutal but charming politicians, cold but successful lawyers, and ultra-aggressive CEOs.

While a few of the successful persons with psychopathic tendencies have killed in order to achieve, we have good reasons to be concerned about inner-city young men who display these tendencies, as some have actually made a business out of killing. Yet, it must be said here that many inner-city boys who display these tendencies will still end up not killing. So what distinguishes a person with psychopathic tendencies who has not killed or is not likely to kill from one who does or is likely to do so?

There are 12 genes related to aggression and violence, but neuroscientists often zero in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A). Boys in ecologies of violence often have a high variant of the gene in order to survive. This gene, which has been the target of considerable research, is also known as the 'warrior gene' because it regulates serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects one's mood and many scientists believe that if a person has a certain version of the MAO-A, that person's brain will not respond to the calming effects of serotonin (Anholt and Mackay 2012, Fallon 2006). This problem can cause a person to be more aggressive than normal.




Neuroscientist James Fallon explains that a number of boys who grow up in violent environments have low activities of the orbital cortex (filter/conscience) located just behind the eyes in the brain. Concurrently, some may have a highly active amygdala (reward centre). These two aspects of the brain work in a way to create a balance in human behaviour. Scans of Fallon's brain show that he has an obvious imbalance - yet he has never been violent. In fact, for him, it was inherited as he had repeat killers in his ancestry. He maintains that even with these neurobiological problems, a young man is likely to be relatively stable - if there is no social trigger.

In other words, neurobiological problems (nature) might not be enough to cause a person to become a 'shotta'. He needs to be triggered to act cold and brutal. The most common triggers are torture and hunger - both of which are common among inner-city males.

In various studies, we have found two of every five inner-city boys to have experienced torture at the hands of caregivers or peers or police. Two of every five inner-city males have also experienced chronic hunger. Note that a young man can be abused severely by his caregiver, or experience chronic hunger, but has no neurobiological problems to be triggered. However, if the abused boy had those other two problems or even one, the chance of that young man becoming a full-time or career killer increases. The torture and neglect of boys can, therefore, be compared to the lethal Russian roulette game. In our quest to reduce violence, one thing must change in our culture: the torture and neglect of boys at home, at school, and on our streets.