Offender profiling is a subject of great controversy. It has been widely portrayed in film and TV and yet the realities of this process, and of its usefulness, are so often misunderstood. Profiling is not, as many would have you believe, a form of magical deduction that leads to an offender being identified and plucked from the masses. Profilers are also not, again as often portrayed, blessed with some insight or strange ability to see the world through the eyes of another. No-one can really do that. At the same time though, profiling is of great interest to people and generates many questions.
For this reason I will be posting a series of articles on this subject here over the coming weeks. These will look at the concept of profiling and try and give you a fuller, and perhaps more realistic, understanding of it. I will give references and links so that you can extend your reading further where you wish to and hope that these posts will be of use, and interest, to students, writers, the police and anyone else who wants to know more about this subject.
I will cover the subject in some breadth, looking at ways it is defined, how it developed and at the different approaches that are taken to profiling. We’ll look at the work of a profiler, at the ways profiles are constructed and use case studies and examples to illustrate this. I’ll also look at the criticisms and controversies that surround it.
To begin with then, let’s examine the concept from the top – just what is offender profiling?
Firstly, offender profiling is known by a wide variety of terms. Read a range of books and papers on the subject and you will find it referred to in terms as diverse as criminal (personality) profiling or assessment, criminal investigative analysis, psychological profiling, investigative profiling, (criminal) behavior(al) profiling, and crime scene profiling (Cook & Hinman, 1999; Egger, 1999; Homant & Kennedy, 1998). Not only is there are wide variety of terms used but they are often, confusingly, used interchangeably.
So why is there this lack of consensus? Why is profiling labelled in such different ways? Essentially this reflects the fact that different theorists and practitioners argue that profiling should be approached, and applied, in different ways. Some, for example, believe that investigative experience and even ‘hunch’ are important factors in profiling. Others reject these assertions, making it clear that profiling must be approached scientifically, or not at all (an assertion that forms the backbone of ‘actuarial’ approaches to profiling developed by Prof. David Canter). These differing approaches will be outlined in more detail in future posts, but the key fact to take away at this point is that profiling is not just ‘one thing.’
As you would expect, these different approaches also mean there are a large number of definitions of profiling. For now, at least, I think the following is a useful start point. According to the FBI offender profiling, is “a technique for identifying the major personality and behavioural characteristics of an individual based upon an analysis of the crimes he or she has committed” (Douglas, Ressler, Burgess, & Hartman, 1986, p. 405).
I would argue, then, that profiling is perhaps best understood as a series of investigative techniques used to determine the characteristics of an unknown criminal offender. It essentially relies on a basic premise: that an individual’s personality and mannerisms guide their everyday behaviours, including their criminal actions (this is based on important principles in psychology, another topic that will be covered in more depth in this series). Evaluating evidence found at the scene of a crime, a profiler relates this information to known behaviours and personality attributes derived from past crimes of other criminals who demonstrated similar traits. Utilizing these similarities, a profiler constructs a description, or profile, of what police investigators should characteristically look for in a suspect.
Although this process is approached in different ways, the literature does tend to agree on one key fact. Offender profiling does not provide the identity of the offender. Instead, it indicates the type of person most likely to have committed the crime. In this way profiling can limit or better direct a criminal investigation by providing leads and strategies to aid the team. Arguably the most important of these is narrowing down the pool of suspects (by means of predicting the offender’s most likely area of residence, previous convictions, bio-psychosocial factors etc.). However profiling can also help predict subsequent crime locations, providing interview suggestions and strategies, assist with case linkage, and perhaps help prevent or predict future crimes (see e.g., Ainsworth, 2000; Ault & Reese, 1980; Douglas et al., 1986; Holmes & De Burger, 1988; Holmes & Holmes, 1996; Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas, 1988).
So, profiling is not the ‘magic bullet’ that some portray it as, but rather a way of potentially assisting with an investigation. The police are excellent at what they do and solve the vast majority of murders and other serious offences using their own expertise. On occasion it may be that extra information can help, and this really is what profiling is about. Narrowing down a suspect pool can help police focus their efforts and aid the process of investigation. Get a profile wrong, though, and the investigation can be sent in entirely the wrong direction which can have potentially dire consequences. If you take this into account you can perhaps begin to see why controversies around this subject abound.
In the next post I’ll look at the development of the field and how this led to the different approaches that were mentioned earlier here. Hope this is of interest!
Ainsworth, P. B. (2000). Crime analysis and offender profiling. In P. B. Ainsworth (Ed.), Psychology and crime: Myths and reality (pp. 102−120). Harlow: Langford.
Ault, R. L., & Reese, J. T. (1980, March). A psychological assessment of crime: Profiling. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 22−25.
Cook, P. E., & Hinman, D. L. (1999). Criminal profiling: Science and art. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 15(3), 230−241.
Douglas, J. E., Ressler, R. K., Burgess, A. W., & Hartman, C. R. (1986). Criminal profiling from crime scene analysis. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 4(4), 401−421
Douglas, J. E., & Burgess, A. E. (1986, December). Criminal profiling: A viable investigative tool against violent crime. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 9−13.
Egger, S. A. (1999). Psychological profiling: Past, present and future. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 15(3), 242−261.
Holmes, R. M., & De Burger, J. (1988). Serial murder. : Sage Publications, Inc.
Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (1996). Profiling violent crimes: An investigative tool, (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc.
Homant, R. J., & Kennedy, D. B. (1998). Psychological aspects of crime scene profiling: Validity research. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 25 (3), 319 −343.
Ressler, R. K., Burgess, A. W., & Douglas, J. E. (1988). Sexual homicides patterns and motives. Lexington Books: New York.