Police Profiling Essay

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Profiling can broadly be defined as an investigative tool that helps predict the personal characteristics and motivations of an unknown offender. The category of profiling includes a variety of techniques and practices, such as analyzing the individual and geographic characteristics of crime scenes, which each contribute unique information to build a more comprehensive profile that assists investigators to narrow down a lengthy suspect list. Profiling can also be misused and critics question its applications as both unethical and inefficient.

Individual Characteristics

Creating a criminal profile (or offender profile as it is known in Europe) involves the analysis of crime scene evidence, both forensic and behavioral, to develop a psychological and physical description of the perpetrator. Analysis of the type of crime, the victim, and other evidence allows investigators to infer information and make educated guesses about the offender such as his or her age, sex, race, occupation, education, and personality makeup. These profiles are then used to seek out particular individuals who fit the description, or to narrow down a list of suspects by removing individuals who do not fit the description.

Criminal profiles are most often employed to identify serial offenders who have committed a series of similar crimes. This allows investigators to note patterns in the offender’s behavior, which is critical in developing a profile. A single act is more difficult to interpret than a series of crimes that reflect similar actions or locations. The consistencies in crime scenes and the manner in which victims were treated allow the police to gain a better understanding of the perpetrator.

Police use a number of approaches to generate a criminal profile, including both deductive and inductive methods. The deductive method involves using the unique clues left at a crime scene to infer characteristics about the perpetrator of that particular crime. For example, leaving the murder weapon at the crime scene may suggest to the police that the offender was disorganized and perhaps did not plan to commit the crime. The inductive method is used when police make inferences about the perpetrator based on the type of crime itself. For example, if the offender started a fire the police would begin to build a profile based on what is known about other arsonists.

Geographic Characteristics

Offenders commit crimes, or do not commit crimes, in specific areas. For example, offenders are more likely to travel farther from their homes to commit property crimes, whereas offenders who commit crimes against people are more likely to do so near their homes. Geographic profiling was developed to take advantage of the understanding of trends in crime scene location. Geographic profiling is a method of deductive profiling in which the investigator draws inferences from evidence left at the crime scene, or in this case, the location of the crime scene itself, to build a profile of the offender. This approach considers the pattern of documented crime scene locations in serial crimes to provide a statistical estimate of the probable residence or base of operations of an offender. The purpose of geographical profiling is to narrow down the area in which the investigators should be focusing their search.

Geographic profiling can be reliably used with serial crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, burglary, vandalism, and arson. Most often the geographic profile is used to narrow down a suspect list based on the location of the suspects’ residence. Those suspects who live closest to the crime scenes are ranked highest, based on the previous assumption that offenders are likely to commit violent crimes in close proximity to their residence.

Computer programs may aid in the development of geographic profiles. These geographic profiling systems use mathematical models of a specific offender’s crime scenes to predict the offender’s most likely place of residence. Similar to criminal profiling, geographic profiling may not help solve the crime by itself, but instead helps investigators to narrow down a long list of suspects.

Connecting Crimes

Another method that profilers use to identify possible suspects is to analyze the unique pattern of behaviors present at a crime scene and compare them to other similar crimes in an attempt to identify a common perpetrator. An issue with this method arises when offenses are committed in different police jurisdictions. Due to a lack of communication between police organizations, investigators of a crime may not be aware that similar crimes had previously been committed in another jurisdiction. This oversight issue is referred to as “missing linkages” and may result in offenders who commit serial crimes in different locations being overlooked.

To resolve the missing linkages issue the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) in 1981. Since that time several other countries have followed suit and developed nationwide crime databases including the popular Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS) that is used in Canada, Belgium, France, and Ireland, among other countries. These computer-based programs catalogue case details about all of the violent crimes committed in a country including homicides, sexual assaults, and missing person cases. To add a new case to ViCLAS, police officers must record more than 200 specific details about the crime, such as forensic and behavioral information, victimology, and the modus operandi (the method the perpetrator used to commit the crime) for each violent crime that they investigate. This information is then uploaded to the database and made accessible to all policing agencies across the country.

National crime database systems can be used in two different ways. First, police officers investigating a violent crime can search the database for crimes with similar characteristics. For example, if the perpetrator used a unique type of weapon the investigating officer can search the database for crimes committed with a similar weapon. Second, database analysts are continuously using structured search methods to search the database for patterns and linkages that may have been overlooked when the crimes first were committed.

Misuses and Criticisms

In addition to the profiling methods that police officers consciously use to narrow down a suspect list, they also may consciously or unconsciously employ a less accurate method of profiling that is largely based on their personal biases and stereotypes. This may result in suspecting an individual of a crime based on his/her race or ethnicity, also known as racial profiling. Racial profiling is a form of discrimination and is an illegal investigative technique.

The most common form of racial profiling is the stopping and searching of vehicles because the occupants do not “match” the type of vehicle they are driving. There is a large racial disparity in who is routinely pulled over for suspicious behavior. For example, black people are far more likely to be pulled over by police than white or Asian people in the United States. This form of racial profiling has been dubbed driving while black (DWB), a term that gained popularity when the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that racial profiling played a role in a high-profile case in which a professional basketball player was pulled over by police while driving.

Police officers use a variety of profiling techniques such as criminal, geographic, and database profiling to solve serial crime. Despite the popularity and intuitive appeal of criminal profiling, as demonstrated by the large number of profilers depicted on television—more than even exist in real life—criminal profiling alone is not particularly helpful when solving crime. Although each of these tools provides unique insight into the perpetrator of the crime, investigators employing these techniques should be aware that profiling is not an exact science. As such, psychological profiles are not an accurate description of the suspect and can result in investigators overlooking the real offender from the suspect list because they do not fit the personality profile. To prevent tunnel vision from occurring due to a reliance on profiles, police should continue to use other investigative tools as well.

Racial profiling also can result in tunnel vision, or a confirmation bias, if an investigator is overlooking other evidence in favor of relying only on the evidence that supports his or her beliefs. Similar to the other forms of profiling, racial profiling can be remedied if investigators use a variety of investigative tools to ensure that all of the evidence implicates a single suspect.


  1. Kocsis, Richard N., ed. Criminal Profiling: International Theory, Research, and Practice. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2007.
  2. Paulsen, Derek. “Human Versus Machine: A Comparison of the Accuracy of Geographic Profiling Methods.” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, v.3 (2006).
  3. Snook, Brent, et al. “The Criminal Profiling Illusion: What’s Behind the Smoke and Mirrors?” Criminal Justice and Behavior, v.35 (2008).
  4. Withrow, Brian L. “Racial Profiling Litigation.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, v.28 (2012).

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