Does Criminology Have a Crime Problem? Not at All, Experts Say

When authorities named a criminology student at Washington State University as a suspect in the murders of four University of Idaho students, the internet went wild with speculation.

Did Bryan C. Kohberger’s academic background play a role in how he carried out the crime? Some theorized that he could have been trying to collect data and first-hand experience for his Ph.D. dissertation. Others pointed to prior examples of serial killers with criminal-justice degrees.

But several experts in criminal justice, forensics, and sociology told The Chronicle that it’s unlikely Kohberger learned how to commit a high-profile crime while studying criminology. Nor is it likely that the field is attracting would-be criminals, they said.

Kohberger is facing four first-degree murder charges for the deaths of Ethan Chapin, 20; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Madison Mogen, 21. The four University of Idaho undergraduates were stabbed to death in an off-campus house on November 13. The University of Idaho’s campus in Moscow, Idaho, is less than 10 miles away from Washington State’s campus in Pullman, Wash.

“In my career, I never had an undergraduate or graduate student who was studying criminology to commit crimes,” said Steven E. Barkan, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Maine. “Actually, students took my courses because they wanted to prevent and reduce crime.”

Barkan said that criminology graduate students tend to pursue careers as professors or researchers. Meanwhile, those at the master’s level tend to become practitioners, such as probation officers.

“There is no evidence that criminology students want to learn to commit crimes themselves. In fact, most people who commit conventional crimes don’t go to college,” Barkan said. States that have higher levels of college-educated people tend to have lower crime rates than the national average, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on criminal justice.

In a 2021 study published in the British Society of Criminology, researchers Julie Trebilcock and Clare Griffiths found that helping others by preventing crimes is one of the three main motivations for students pursuing a criminology degree. None of the motivations found by the researchers were about committing crimes.

Chris D. Bertram, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Salt Lake Community College who has over 25 years of law-enforcement experience, said that Kohberger’s case is unique, and that the vast majority of criminal-justice majors aren’t looking to become criminals. He also said that learning criminology in an academic setting doesn’t necessarily mean one would know how to commit homicide without leaving evidence behind.

“[Kohberger] had a good academic background in criminal justice, but he didn’t have the operational background,” Bertram said. “If you’re simply taking classes, reading Wikipedia, Googling things, you’re going to learn something, but you’re not going to know everything that is out there, including technology and higher-end law-enforcement investigative services.”

In my career, I never had an undergraduate or graduate student who was studying criminology to commit crimes. Actually, students took my courses because they wanted to prevent and reduce crime.

“He may have considered the fact that the Moscow police department was small and didn’t have the capacities that some of the larger departments have, not realizing that the chief of police would call the FBI immediately to help with this investigation,” Bertram said. The Moscow police department has about 30 officers and has never had to investigate a crime of this magnitude before.

Joseph L. Giacalone, an adjunct professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that it’s rare that criminology students commit crimes. “I don’t see this as a problem for the course of study,” he said.

He said that those who carry out horrific crimes could have studied any academic discipline. “The potential of a student committing a financial crime doesn’t stop our economics classes from teaching pyramid schemes. We’ve also seen nurses who became serial killers themselves,” Giacalone said, referring to four Austrian nurses known as “angels of death” who killed at least 49 people in the 1980s.

According to a 2009 survey, only one in five American colleges reported that they run criminal background checks on applicants, regardless of program of study. The Chronicle asked over a dozen criminology programs at colleges across the country whether they collected data on students’ criminal backgrounds. The two that responded do not collect information on criminal backgrounds outside of self-disclosure.

Giacalone said that some of Kohberger’s actions could be attributed to him having some knowledge about how evidence is left behind. “He did try to shut his cell phone off. He was wearing a mask — I doubt he was worried about Covid. He was probably worried about spitting and DNA,” he said. “But he didn’t wear gloves, for example. For somebody who has been studying this, he makes a lot of mistakes.”

Joseph Scott Morgan, an associate professor of applied forensics at Jacksonville State University, in Alabama, said that many in the media and in social media aren’t aware of the differences between criminology and forensic science as separate fields of study. While criminology focuses on sociological and psychological aspects of crime, forensic science is the application of traditional sciences in order to examine crime scenes.

“Many are assuming he’s some kind of criminal mastermind that would be able to ‘cover his tracks.’ I doubt he had any kind of substantial forensic training,” Morgan said. “There’s no such a thing as a perfect crime. Any time a human is introduced, there’s potential for them to miss something. It’s unpredictable.”

“There isn’t enough data to create a picture of his rationales,” Morgan said. “Jumping into conclusions doesn’t help anybody involved.”

Kohberger’s first court appearance in Idaho was on January 5. He has been denied bail, and his next court appearance is set for January 12.

Sylvia Goodman contributed to this reporting.

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