Forensic Sleuth Cracks Career Path

Dr Oliver Chan reveals how forensic tip-offs led to career in criminology

Dr Oliver CHAN Heng Choon and Sherlock Holmes share a passion for understanding criminal psyche. However, the similarities between academic reality and detective fiction end here.

Chan is an Associate Professor of the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at City University, and he dissects crimes in a way like peeling off the layers of an onion, and then investigating their underlying factors. His works have been recognised by the university. Chan was honoured with “The President’s Award” and the “CLASS New Researcher Award” in 2017. His primary research interests cover sexual homicide, offender profiling, sex offending, homicide, stalking behaviour, and Asian criminology.

While he studied for a master’s degree in forensic psychology in the US, Chan interned at the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) and later worked as an analyst in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Criminals Apprehension Program in the MPDC’s Homicide Case Review Unit.

“I gained access to the gigantic database of crimes in the US. I was fortunate enough to be involved,” Chan says, adding that it was an eye-opening experience. “The unit focused on getting further evidence to reopen cold cases, especially those dating back to 20 to 30 years ago, when DNA had not been so advanced. We examined individual cases and tried to reopen the cases again.”

Although the practical work experience gave Chan his first taste of criminology, he chose to return to his native Malaysia to help establish a new master’s programme in economic crime management in a private university.

“Around this time, I started to cultivate a deeper interestin criminology and read many academic articles on the violent type of offences,” Chan says. “I became fascinated. I wantedto learn more about the people who have committed thesecrimes and their mentality, how such a mentality was formed,as well as the motivation behind such heinous offences.”

Around the same time, he was busy working out his future plans and the lure of an academic career in criminology was irresistible. He eventually decided to return to the US and pursue a PhD in criminology.

Chan’s primary research focuses have practical applications, particularly in offender profiling. His research has been informed with the insight he gained while working for the police in the US, and shows the balance of academic and law-enforcement’s perspectives.

“When I first started my research in criminology, I had the opportunity to analyse the large data set of many cases committed in the US in the past 30 years,” the associate professor says. “I have come up with the findings that could inform the law enforcement. Hopefully, they could help the police prioritise the strategies in their investigation. Say for instance, when the police are at a crime scene when a woman has been killed with a knife, my findings may give them some leads as to the probability that the killer is a man or woman; what the race of the killer is, and other background information. These leads may help the officers narrow down the suspect pool.”

Chan’s research scope has evolved to include juvenile delinquency and school bullying. He is the co-principal investigator for a research project titled “Assessment on Youth Sexual Risky Behaviour and Implications for Narrative Therapeutic Intervention 2017-19”, conducted in collaboration with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG). He is also helping to develop assessment and screening tools for adolescents at risk of committing sexually risky behaviour, including having sex too early, unsafe sex, and having too many sexual partners.

“We help HKFYG identify this group of people and then they will proceed with therapeutic approach to help lower the risk,” he adds. “When I complete my part of the project, my colleague will develop the preventive measures.”

Another ongoing project is the “Exploratory Study of the Overlap between Sexual Victimisation and Sexually Deviant Behaviour among Hong Kong Young Adults, 2017-19,” which is supported by CityU’s Strategic Research Grant. The overlap refers to the likelihood that a victim of a sexual crime may become an offender, or vice versa. This project follows up on Chan’s initial research project backed by the competitive Early Career Scheme grant, which examined the overlap between sexual victimisation and sexual offence, the underlying factors, as well as characteristics shared by the offenders and victims. As the current project’s principal investigator, Chan focuses on the sexual part of the victimisation and abuses.

He is also working on a global case book of sexual homicide.

“I have identified 13 cases globally, including three from Hong Kong,” Chan says. “I dissect them from a psychocriminological standpoint. Some reviewers recommend that the book should be useful for parole officers dealing with sex offenders and in police training. It is also a textbook for university students and general laymen readers.”

The cases originating from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and other Asian countries have been integrated into Chan’s course on sexual offending. To deepen students’ understanding, Chan asks them to compare and contrast the rare cases in Asia with those documented in literature in the West. The objective is to identify the similarities and differences and figure out the underlying factors, he says.

“Towards the end of each class, I will show them a documentary on related topics so that the students learn to apply the theories discussed,” Chan adds.

Having received all his university education in the US, he has seen his academic career thrive in Hong Kong. “The city has given me many opportunities in research about criminology,” Chan says. “I would like to continue with what I’ve been doing. I will also try to expand the scope of my research to places in, say, South Asia and South America. I am working on building up my credentials so that people from overseas are willing to collaborate with me.”

My findings may give [the police] some leads as to the probability that the killer is a man or woman; what the race of the killer is, and other background information

Dr Oliver Chan