Criminal Profiling Essay

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Offender profiling or psychological profiling/ criminal profiling/crime scene analysis is generally regarded as “an educated attempt to provide investigative agencies with specific information as to the type of individual who would have committed a certain crime.” While variations exist, it is fairly universally agreed that the general aim of a profile is to provide investigative agencies with a range of indices or identifiers that will provide leads and/ or narrow the suspect pool. The contents of an offender profile usually consist of demographic variables (e.g., age, ethnicity, and marital status) and often more specific deductions relating to past criminal history, motivation(s), and geospatial information such as possible home location. The form and style of a profile is heavily dependent upon the individual profiler and perhaps more so a function of the particular profiling methodology with which profilers are trained. Subsequently, there are often contradictions and misinterpretations of the offender characteristics and investigative suggestion, which can and do have a profound impact upon both the investigation and resulting criminal case against any alleged offender.

One of the first real examples of profiling was conducted by New York-based psychiatrist James Brussel. He was to provide a profile of the Mad Bomber, a criminal responsible for detonating a number of crude explosive devices in and around the city for a number of years. In 1956, police arrested George Metesky; subsequent inquiries revealed he was almost a perfect match to Brussel’s profile, including his choice of attire (a buttoned double-breasted suit). Using information from the crime scenes and other materials (in particular a number of letters sent to the police), Brussel diagnosed the offender with a form of paranoia, which had manifested itself in a grudge against the Edison Electrical Company. Metesky had once worked for Edison and had defamed it in numerous letters discovered at the bomb sites; more significantly, the company was also the target of the first bomb. Within these letters, Brussel’s identified numerous phrases that were not representative of the colloquial language of resident Americans and led him to assert that there was a strong likelihood that the bomber was an immigrant to the United States. Upon Metesky’s apprehension, Brussel recounts that he observed some relief from Metskey that he had finally been caught; the accuracy and utility of his deductions secured the psychiatrist his place in profiling legend.

Brussel’s method of profiling has since been termed diagnostic evaluation—an estimation based primarily on clinical features. Brussel’s profiling endeavors were again utilized in the arrest in 1964 of Albert DeSalvo—charged with being the Green Man rapist and later the Boston Strangler, following his confession to his psychiatrist. Although DeSalvo was never actually tried with the Boston cases (he was murdered by another inmate while awaiting trial), Brussel’s apparent successes led him to become involved with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) emerging Behavioral Science Unit (BSU)—immortalized in the movie The Silence of the Lambs—at Quantico, Virginia, and where Special Agents Howard Teten and Pat Mullany led the quest for a more systematized understanding of criminal behavior in the early 1970s. Some years later, the FBI began the Criminal Personality Research Project, involving the interviewing of 36 incarcerated sexual killers. Analysis of the data revealed some rudimentary patterns of behavior, which were subsequently mapped to a function of the level of organization that had been extended to the commission of the crime. The approach resulted in a checklist of behaviors, each categorized as being associated with an organized or a disorganized offender. Agents from the FBI have consulted on major crimes throughout the world, and many past agents have attained almost celebrity status in the field of crime analysis, producing many semiautobiographical accounts of their cases.

The FBI was also consulted by the Metropolitan Police in London regarding a number of rapes in the area. In November 1985, Professor David Canter from the University of Surrey, England, was contacted by two senior detectives from New Scotland Yard to discuss the viability of developing a similar method of criminal detection. Canter then became involved in the hunt for the Railway Rapist and using Canter’s profile later apprehended John Duffy. The locations of Duffy’s crimes in particular, being near railway lines and stations, were a prominent feature of Canter’s analysis. Following this early success and some additional consultations, Canter developed the term investigative psychology (IP) to encompass his ideas surrounding offender behavior. Canter developed a range of theories to explain criminal behavior. For example, his explorations into criminal narratives defined his five-factor model of offending behavior: interpersonal coherence, time and place, criminal career, forensic awareness, and criminal characteristics. IP is perhaps the more academic of the three main profiling methods and has a continually evolving theory base; research continues on its applicability and utility in investigations.

With such different methods and theoretical underpinnings, attempts to evaluate the validity or accuracy of profiling have been limited to a range of surveys and quasi-experimental studies. An early review of United Kingdom (UK) endeavors by G. Copson suggested that the profiles themselves have seemingly led to the offender or provided new leads in less than 5 percent of cases. Comparisons between the actual different methods in experimental situations have been rare, if not nonexistent, but evaluations between trained profilers, detectives, psychologists, and other groups have produced inconclusive results. In particular, a 2008 study by Norris, Rafferty, and Campbell showed that police officers and a control group (psychology students), looked for different features of a profile (e.g., motivation, investigative utility) when evaluating its apparent merits. Studies into Barnum statements have also shown that the content of a profile is often so widely interpretable as to make its assertions almost meaningless. While profilers might demonstrate exceptional skills and insight into criminal behavior when portrayed in the myriad films and TV shows in which they appear, the reality on the ground in terms of their acceptance and integration into investigative work is less clear-cut.

Some high-profile cases have highlighted other issues with profiling that have cast their own limitations on such practices. Applied incorrectly, profiling can not only identify the innocent erroneously, but also direct resources away from the guilty through their lack of a match to the profile. Perhaps a barometer as to its adequacy as a scientific practice can be gauged by the extent it is accepted as evidence submitted during legal proceedings; profiling has not appeared in a significant number of legal cases, and when it has, it has predominantly been used in coroners’ courts in relation to “equivocal” deaths or contested suicides. The “psychological autopsy” is a practice that seeks to establish the individual’s state of mind preceding his or her death, using inputs from family members, diaries, suicide notes, and financial records, The USS Iowa incident, whereby an explosion in one of the ship’s gun turrets was attributed to a crew member, Clayton Hartwig, is one case that highlights some of the problems and limitations of profiling. In this instance, FBI profilers gathered information regarding his background that led them to the conclusion that Hartwig’s sexual preferences had led him to harbor bitter resentment to his treatment in the navy and that he had detonated a device deliberately onboard the ship. However, later examination revealed that an equally likely cause was surplus explosives being loaded into the turret, and no evidence of any foreign explosive devices was discovered—sufficient to record a narrative verdict for the 47 crew members who lost their lives and to exonerate Hartwig.

A key aspect in the USS Iowa investigation was the information with which the profilers had been working. In particular, the Armed Forces subcommittee who reported on the investigation in 1990 discovered that:

The preponderance of material came from interviews conducted and provided to the FBI by the (Naval Investigative Service [NIS]). As the subcommittee found earlier, serious questions were raised about the leading nature or bias introduced in the interviews by the NIS interviewing agents. Some witnesses denied making statements to NIS that are significant to the profile.

The suggestion in relation to the use of the profile was that Hartwig was already considered to be a suspect in the case and that the interviews lent themselves to a psychological judgment error or heuristic known as the “confirmation bias” whereby people set out with a preconceived idea and seek out information that will ultimately support this notion. Equally important is the fact that people laboring under the confirmation bias have a tendency to ignore or demean information that may refute their initial hypothesis. The danger with using an offender profile is that it can provide vastly inflated assurances to investigators that they have identified the offender because a suspect they have identified as being of interest is a match. Paradoxically, one of the key aims of profiling is to narrow the suspect pool; the danger comes when investigators put too much faith in the profile— either through necessity (where other evidence is lacking) and/or else though a misunderstanding of the theory, methods, and limitations of offender profiling more widely. The case involving Colin Stagg and one of the UK’s then best known profilers, Paul Britton, demonstrates this most vividly.

On July 15, 1992, Rachel Nickell was murdered in front of her 2-year-old son on Wimbledon Common, London. As was de riguer in these instances, the Metropolitan Police enlisted Britton’s assistance. The police had already identified a number of potential suspects and one of the names that were given to police by eyewitnesses was a local man named Colin Stagg. It later emerged that Stagg had had contact with a woman from a “lonely hearts” column, and with the behavioral insights provided by Britton, investigators attempted to lure their suspect into revealing his violent sexual tendencies to the undercover police officer posing as his confidant through their correspondence. This sting operation eventually led to a meeting between Stagg and an undercover police officer, but Stagg ultimately would not confess. At trial the case was thrown out due to the potential ethical and procedural breaches resulting from the “honey trap” operation; profiling generally was exposed as being unscientific and prejudicial. Paul Britton was not charged with misconduct, but his behavior in the investigation came under scrutiny by the British Psychological Society and the professional community.

Britton’s assessment of Stagg’s apparent sexual preferences as belonging to an abnormal subgroup put the chances of two such individuals being present on Wimbledon Common on that particular day as “vanishingly” small. One of the problems associated with quantifying profiling advice is that it is complicated to establish reliable base rates for many of the behaviors that appear within a profile. One study examining the role of probability in profiling claims suggested that people were poor at recognizing base rates for a range of these statements. More worryingly, it was also reported that the more dangerous the claim made about the offender, the more likely the recipient of this information was to judge it as being valid. The fact that Robert Napper and Colin Stagg were both present on the common the day Rachel Nickel was murdered and that they both had a predilection for violent sexual behavior is a good example of the misuse/misunderstanding of profiling. It may be assumed that because the incidence rate for a behavior is so small and the chances of such a coincidence so minute that it renders the defendant almost automatically guilty.

Popular television plots use these narratives to exploit viewers’ innate tendencies to stereotype and categorize. In a critical review of “traditional approaches to profiling,” L. Alison and M. Barrett suggest that the interpretation of profiles is not dissimilar to “story generation” and the cognitive heuristics associated with making sense of difficult and/or ambiguous situations and information, especially in legal contexts. In particular, they cite a number of studies that imply that the production of these stories is greatly influenced by existing knowledge. Alison and Barrett report one study in which it is reported that jurors explicitly used “crime-related schemata” in their assessment of information, and they concluded that “it appears that people rely on underlying prototypical crime scripts when processing trial-like information.” An examination of profile content by Alison, M.D. Smith, O. Eastman, and L. Rainbow indicated that 85 percent of the information contained in a profile was of an ambiguous nature and was largely open to various interpretations. Therefore, it appears that the way in which people make sense of offender profiles is likely to be strongly influenced by their knowledge of legal and/or psychological concepts associated with criminal behavior.

Finally, ethical and legal concerns have been prominent in shaping the direction of professional profiling practice. Issues concerned with accuracy and utility will seemingly always be omnipresent in discussions on profiling—such is the nature of the field and the subject matter. Profilers can never state that they are 100 percent sure that the offender is X, Y, and Z. However, in identifying decision heuristics such as the confirmation bias it is possible to see how using profiling evidence in the wrong way can lead to catastrophic failures in the investigative process, for example, targeting and focusing solely on one individual (i.e., the match for the profile). No longer do profilers appear as mythical figures with unprecedented insights into the human psyche; rather, and somewhat at odds with the version of events people might read in profilers’ memoirs or as portrayed on television, the profile is just one tool in the investigator’s arsenal.

Ethical considerations have focused on two main areas: (1) the qualifications of those who have been involved in providing advice in investigations, and (2) the format/style with which this information is provided. With regard to the former, as noted by Alison, C. McLean, and L. Almond, there has been a general reluctance by either the American Psychological Association or the British Psychological Society to devote attention to profiling as a specific sub discipline of forensic psychology, with the exception of the usual cursory note regarding members engaging in activities outside their training or expertise. However, in the United States, the FBI has its own training program—in the UK the National Centre for Policing Excellence holds lists of accredited profilers. Regarding the second major ethical consideration, academic research in particular has been useful in shaping not only the way in which the profiling advice is presented, but also how individual inferences are supported by reference to previous cases and/or statistical evidence. While profiling has some way to go before being accepted as reliable evidence in court, the professionalization of the field has moved on considerably, away from the more trait-based models toward more theoretically grounded and empirically supported models of offender behavior and focused investigative advice.


  1. Alison, L. and M. Barrett. “The Interpretation and Utilisation of Offender Profiles: A Critical Review of “Traditional” Approaches to Profiling.” In Forensic Psychology: Concepts, Debates and Practice, J. R. Adler, ed. Cullompton, UK: Willan, 2004.
  2. Alison, L., C. McLean, and L. Almond. “Profiling Suspects.” In Handbook of Criminal Investigations, T. Newburn, T. Williamson, and A. Wright, eds. Cullompton, UK: Willan, 2007.
  3. Alison, L., M. D. Smith, O. Eastman, and L. Rainbow. “Toulmin’s Philosophy of Argument and Its Relevance to Offender Profiling.” Psychology, Crime & Law, v.9 (2003).
  4. Alison, L., M. Smith, and K Morgan. “Interpreting the Accuracy of Offender Profiles.” Psychology, Crime & Law, v.9 (2003).
  5. Brussel, J. Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist. New York: Bernard Geis, 1968.
  6. Copson, G. Coals to Newcastle? Part 1: A Study of Offender Profiling. Police Research Group Special Interest Series No. 7. London: Home Office, 1995.
  7. Freckleton, I. “Profiling Evidence in Courts.” In Psychology and Law: Bridging the Gap, D. Canter et al., eds. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.
  8. Geberth, V. J. Practical Homicide Investigation. 3rd ed. New York: CRC Press, 1996.
  9. Kocsis, R. N., H. J. Irwin, A. F. Hayes, and R. Nunn. “Expertise in Psychological Profiling: A Comparative Assessment.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, v.15/3 (2000).
  10. Norris, G. and W. A. Petherick. “Criminal Profiling in the Courtrooms: Behavioural Investigative Advice or Bad Character Evidence?” Cambrian Law Review, v.41 (2011).
  11. Norris, G., E. Rafferty, and J. Campbell. “An Analysis of Content Preference in Offender Profiles.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.54 (2010).
  12. Pinizzotto, A. J. and N. J. Finkel. “Criminal Personality Profiling: An Outcome and Process Study.” Law and Human Behavior, v.14 (1990).
  13. Villejoubert, G., L. Almond, and L. Alison. “Interpreting Claims in Offender Profiles: The Role of Probability Phrases, Base-Rates and Perceived Dangerousness.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, v.23 (2008).

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