Easy Pickings - Urban African-American Female Victims

From the years 1986-1996, one hundred twenty-three murdered black women in Washington DC were still listed as unsolved homicides. Outrage from the public finally surfaced after the bodies of two young teenage girls found behind Ballou High School in Southeast DC were added to that list. After a few newspaper articles and a highly emotional town meeting at the school, the cloud of apathy rolled back in and the two young girls' murders made their way to the cold case squad in the homicide building on Indiana Avenue. The second burial of the victims had begun.

Female, black and urban. These three factors together spell out clearly to rapists and serial killers that these women are easy pickings. While not all of the unsolved murders of the DC women during the last decade were victims of serial killers, they were certainly available to those particular offenders. They were at high risk to become victims but the offender would be at very low risk to be apprehended. High victim risk is related to an individual's chances of becoming a victim due to their relationships within society including their age, occupation, place of residence and traveling routes, their abilities to protect themselves, their behavior and the way their carry out their activities. Common examples of high victim risk are prostitutes and hitchhikers, unattended children, the homebound elderly, and the homeless. Low offender risk refers to the low probability of arrest for the offender due to the victim being unidentified, not missed or not immediately missed, or the unlikelihood of the offender being identified by the victim if the victim is killed, the offender is masked or the area is too dark to see clearly.

It is probably quite clear as to why some urban African-American women fall under the above examples for high victim risk. Black Americans suffer more poverty and make up a high percentage of our city populations; therefore, it is only reasonable that we should see black women in these designations. However, many African-American women who are murdered by serial killers do not fit these categories at all. So what factors contribute to their high victim risk status? The answer lies in a web of victim's lifestyles, urban realities, the attitudes of the press and the public, the abilities of local police departments , the political power of the community and the offender's knowledge and use of these very circumstances.

Hickey states "Young females, especially if they were alone, ranked the highest in general preference of offenders". This simple statement is a key to the high number of serial murders of black women in a city. Hickey continues, "Hitchhikers, students walking alone, women living alone or seeking employment, and women who engage in certain professions and jobs (such as nurses, models, and waitresses) sometimes or frequently increased their risk factor by associating with total strangers". Breaking this down further, we can surmise that with the increased use of public transportation in the city, we can find more students and workers walking to and from the bus stops at varying hours of the day and night. Large portions of the work force engaging in cleaning services of large office buildings, staff at local hospitals, waitresses, parking lot attendants and security guards are made up of minority women working the evening or graveyard shift. They are most likely going to be out alone on the street when the risk is highest.

The Book of Risks most likely candidate for rape is described as "under twenty-five, black, unmarried, and away from home in the evening."The lack of vehicles in many families also forces younger members to use public transportation or requires them to walk to their destinations, even after dark. Although one tends to see less hitchhiking within the city limits, 'carhopping' is a recent trend that has become a prolific and dangerous activity among teenage girls. This behavior consists of older men driving either a fancy vehicle or even a "hoopdy"' (an older, dilapidated car) offering drugs for sex or just rides to parties and a fun time to naïve girls looking for a little bit of excitement.

Furthermore, many of these girls have an alarming amount of freedom to roam the neighborhood after dark. Often, the young girls make their own decisions about where they are going and where they will spend the night, merely informing the parent that they will not be coming back for a while. Sometimes, the girls do not return for a number of nights and as quite a few homes do not have phones, the parent may not have any clue as to the daughter's actual whereabouts. The two murdered Ballou High School students were suspected to have engaged in this activity and the girls did tend to run their own lives and this less then pristine lifestyle leads us to the next issues of public concern, the political clout of those who care, and the attitudes of the press.

The value of the victim to society and the value of 'victim as news story' influence the amount of pressure the police experience to solve the crime. One unfortunate fact is simply that black-on-black crimes receive less press attention. Michael Kaufman of the Times commented: "…rapes of black women did not get prominence because I think we were sensitized. I suspect it's commonplace and not news. With blacks seven times more likely than whites to be a murder victim in the United States, it is not surprising a female rape or murder victim becomes just number and not shocking news. When a black woman ends up dead in on the street, in an alley, behind a school or even in her home, people often shrug and believe that she may have been a prostitute or on drugs. If those two lifestyles are denied by the family, many think the family just didn't know the truth or the women must have been done in by a boyfriend. The murder is then easily dismissed as the victim's fault and certainly not an indication of danger for women living 'proper' lives. Without a caring public and with many of the victims coming from less affluent families unable to cope with the politics of pushing for a closure in the case, the victim soon vanishes from view. Egger adequately sums of this situation with these words: "When a victim comes from a powerless and marginalized sector of our population, there is little pressure to solve the case and apprehend the killer. Without public or mass media pressure, such victims become less and less important."

Internal aspects of the investigation also hamper success. In Washington DC, finances and accountability are limited; the caseload, astronomical. In September of 1997, the Metropolitan Police Department admitted a shockingly low closure rate of homicides in the District. Only 42 per cent of homicides were solved in 1996 compared with a national closure rate of about 65 per cent. Cases are often transferred from one detective to another with little continuity. My own experience found that a 1995 unsolved murder of a young black woman had been shifted around so frequently that it was two weeks and five phone calls before the proper detective for the case was found.

Added to this difficulty is the extremely frustrating problem of "linkage blindness", a concept defined by Stephen Egger as "the nearly total lack of sharing or coordinating of investigative information and the lack of adequate networking by law enforcement agencies. This lack of sharing or networking is prevalent today with law enforcement officers and in their agencies. Thus linkages are rarely established among geographic area of the county between similar crime patterns and modus operandi." In the Washington DC area this is not only a problem of individual failure to recognize links, but also failing to share information with a detective manning the next desk and failing to contact the jurisdictions of Prince George's County and Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia; the counties that border the city and every criminal knows crossing is a simply way to elude investigation. Allowing for the transiency rate of psychopaths and the general public in this area, it is only likely a serial murderer will likely commit his next crime in another jurisdiction.

The predator is no fool. He recognizes the weaknesses in society described above. He knows he can easily blend into the woodwork in a large city; that when a murder occurs, the number of suspects available is overwhelming. He has a zone of behavioral activity within which he feels comfortable and can carry out his activities successfully. He knows the public is not very concerned about young black women. He knows the family is helpless. He knows the police department is confused and inefficient. He knows the media will ignore the crime altogether or give it just a paragraph or two on the second or third page of the Metro section. He knows the picture of the woman is rarely displayed, so the public is unlikely to remember her in a few days time.

During an investigation of serial murders in the Washington area that the I have been conducting over the past two years, I had been rather perplexed about the murder of a married woman in her home in a reasonably prosperous housing development in Prince George's County, a predominately white middle class community. This professional woman was found by her husband on the floor of her living room, stabbed seventeen times in the abdomen. She died en route to the hospital. The husband was not a suspect, the woman had no enemies and she lived a very quiet and unassuming lifestyle. The only two reports of this woman's murder were a couple of paragraphs on two succeeding days. Nothing has been written since then. No picture was included with the stories. The police stated they thought racism might have been an issue as the husband was Indian and a white man in the area had been making threatening remarks about interracial couples. During my interview with the husband, who was actually a Trinidadian of Indian descent, I asked to see a picture of his wife. He brought me out a nicely framed eight by ten photo of his deceased wife. She was black.

Figures. I should have known. The perpetrator did.

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