The origins of psychology and the study of human behaviour can be traced back to philosopher Rene Descartes. Back in the 17th century he tried to answer the question of whether the body and mind were separate entities or intertwined with each other in some way. It was he who proposed that the human mind has influence over the physical body and equally the physical body can influence the mind.
The Criminal Profile: Criminal Psychology vs Forensic Psychology
Criminal psychology is the field of psychology which focuses on criminals and criminal behaviour with the aim of understanding why criminals commit crimes. The role of a criminal psychologist extends to assessing offenders to astern risk of reoffending, providing expert testimony in court and offender profiling in developing a criminal profile.
The label of ‘criminal psychology‘ is often used interchangeably with forensic psychology and while there is some overlap there are also some clear differences in the two disciplines.
Forensic psychologists primarily provide their expertise within the criminal justice system where they apply their knowledge to criminal investigation and law.
While this can involve aspects of profiling and developing a criminal profile within an investigation, forensic psychologists spend most of their time in the judicial system and are not often directly involved in assisting law enforcement in solving a crime or hunting down a criminal.
The idea of criminal profiling, or simply ‘profiling’ as it is often known, has been portrayed in the media through television, film and countless books. The hugely successful TV show ‘Criminal Minds’ depicts a crack team of FBI Agents within the elite Behavioural Analysis Unit as they work together profiling serial killers and flying across America to help police forces track them down. Once they have assessed the crime scene and the evidence available, they deliver their criminal profile to the local law enforcement teams, ready to go out and find the killer.
The best selling books “Whoever Fights Monsters” (1992) by Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman and “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit“ (1995) by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, give us a glimpse of the real work of the FBI in their pursuit of understanding the minds of criminals and in the capture of some of America’s worst serial killers.
Related: Top 10 FBI Criminal Profiling Books
When combined, such material can give the general public a skewed view of what profiling actually is and the role of a criminal profiler. Furthermore, the terminology used to refer to a criminal profile can be varied.
Psychological profile, offender profiling and criminal investigative analysis have all been used to describe the process and the criminal profile itself. Investigative psychology is an area developed to approach profiling based within science and as such is the preferred term for many people.
What is a Criminal Profile?
A criminal profile can be described as behavioural profile of an offender generally created after the crime has been committed using evidence from the crime scene. As explained by Pete Klismet, a retired FBI criminal profiler:
“Criminal profiling is the art of developing a behavioural profile of an offender based on evidence from a crime scene and many other factors involved in an investigation of a violent crime.”
Understanding why a person has committed a crime can give an indication of their motive and if a motive is known, narrowing down the individual who carried out the crime becomes easier.
Criminal profiling has made its name with the public in association with the hunt for serial killers and while used in this area, it is not its only use. Criminal profilers often work on cases such as bank robberies, arson, occult and ritualistic crimes, sexual assaults and rape cases, developing a criminal profile of each offender.
When it comes to serial killers, the assumption about an individual who could kill repeatedly and often in the most gruesome of manners is that they are insane to the point they are not in full control of their behaviour, however this is rarely the case.
Mental illness and violence are often associated together and can be a focus within media reporting, particularly when a murder is very brutal or is a random attack. However, statistically the relationship between mental illness and violence is much lower than is often suggested.
There is a long list of serial killers who were declared entirely sane at their trials, meaning no mental health issue impacted on their behaviour and their reasoning for committing multiple murder. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen, John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Radar to name just a few.
The term ‘psychopath’ is often used, particularly when discussing serial killers and while some may fall into the category of a psychopathic killer, not all of them do. These are the kinds of issues that are taken into account when developing a criminal profile.
In fact there are very few prosecuted serial killers who have been declared insane. Albert DeSalvo, the ‘Boston Strangler‘, is one serial killer who targeted women between 1962 and 1964 killing thirteen in total.
He was declared insane at trial and sent to a high security mental hospital. He however, escaped shortly afterwards and was then sent to a standard prison to complete his sentence.
Kenneth Erksine is another serial killer of note in terms of insanity. Known as the ‘Stockwell Strangler‘, he killed seven women in London in 1986 and was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1988.
In 2009 he won an insanity appeal which ruled he should have been convicted of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. He is now detained indefinitely inside Broadmoor, previously known as Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. A criminal profile is usually put together after a crime has been committed. We are not at the stage yet within psychology or neurocriminology to be able to predict when and if an individual will commit a crime and what type of crime that may be.
While individuals may show warning signs and may have aspects of their personality or behaviour which are suggestive they are capable of committing such crimes, this is by no means a guarantee that they will in fact go ahead and do so. Identifying who may or may not become a murderer, a school shooter or an individual who could take the lives of their own family is practically impossible and we are therefore left with trying to understand motives, drives and behaviours after the fact.
There are however a number of behaviours which, to the trained eye, can provide valuable information about the personality of a killer.
For example, killers often follow the same modus operandi; that is how they carry out their crime. A serial killer is often discovered due to the similar nature of each crime they are responsible for. A criminal profile is an attempt by an individual qualified in the study of human behaviour to provide detailed information to law enforcement on the kind of individual who may have committed the crime in question. Not all crimes however, are suitable for a criminal profile. A pattern of behaviours is most often required for an accurate and useful profile to be drawn up.
Inductive Verses Deductive Profiling
There have traditionally been two ways a criminal profiler can approach and develop a criminal profile of an offender. Inductive profiling uses historic information on crimes and known offenders to gain an understanding of these common traits and how they can be used. It is an approach which goes by the principle that if crimes committed by different people are similar, then the people who committed those crimes must also share common personality traits.
The key to this approach is similar crimes. A current crime can be compared against similar crimes of the past and the known perpetrators of those crimes. This can then provide information on the characteristics, personality types and behaviours most likely that will be found in the perpetrator of the crime at hand, helping to narrow down a list of suspects or highlight the types of personality more likely to have committed the crime.
The deductive method of criminal profiling in contrast, is more similar to what is highlighted in the media and on television. The information about the criminal in question comes directly from an analysis of the crime scene.
Victimology is also very important where the profiler finds out all information they can about the victims of the crime. The idea is that the more information is known about the victim the more information can be gained about the offender.
While inductive profiles can be fairly quick to develop, a profiler using the deductive method could take many weeks or months to build a full criminal profile. The crime scene is vital in this approach and it must be left untouched if its full potential for providing information can be tapped into. If a crime scene has been cleaned up or altered either by the family or the police officers on the scene, this can be very damaging to this type of criminal profile.
Of course a criminal profiler will often use a combination of these approaches in developing a criminal profile. The historic information about similar crimes should never be ignored and can provide valuable information when taken into account in conjunction with the current crime scene and victimology information. Equally a knowledge of psychology and psychiatry through criminal psychology gives an understanding of human behaviour. When added to historical crime information on similar types of crime and the current crime scene information, a profiler can build a full picture.
The crime scene can be the most important factor in beginning to understand the pathology of a criminal, particularly in a murder case. Some crimes are planned, carefully thought out and executed in accordance to that plan. They show organisation and thought behind the series of events. Other crimes are not so organised, they can be chaotic, more opportunistic and do not display the same level of thinking beforehand to ensure some control over the events.
Organised and Disorganised Behaviours
A key feature in the literature of criminal profiling is the organised verses disorganised killer, and this can be deduced mainly from the scene of their crime. Such categories reflect the killers personalities which can provide clues into how they think and operate and who they might be.
- Organised killers tend to leave little evidence at a crime scene, they are antisocial personalities but they do understand what is right and what is wrong and are entirely sane individuals. They plan ahead, pick their victim in advance and bring any tools or aids with them to their selected location for the attack.
- Disorganised killers in contrast tend to leave more evidence at the scene of the crime that can be traced, such as fingerprints or bodily fluids. They can act more impulsively than organised offenders which is often the reason for their disorganised presentation at a crime scene. Often these types of killers have a mental illness or could be under the influence of substances at the time of the crime. However, they should not all be assumed to be mentally ill, many disorganised offenders are highly intelligent and by no means insane. They are able to integrate in society and do not stand out as a person who may have sinister intentions towards others.
Criminal Profiling as a Science
Many have argued that criminal profiling does not have enough scientific evidence to support its existence and should not be relied upon or used as frequently as it is. They highlight the methods used have no solid theoretical grounding or evidence for their use.
It is therefore, not universally accepted that criminal profiling is a science and many fear it is a phantom science, a creation carried through information passed between the literature, police officers and mental health professionals that has given the illusion that it is an area with supporting evidence.
Moreover, there has been some criticism of the early FBI unit profilers, such as Robert Ressler and John Douglas, for not being trained and qualified psychologists. However, it cannot be denied that the work they carried out has been hugely influential in the development of the field.
The openness and acceptance of a police department towards a criminal profile is important in the process. If the police have no faith in a criminal profile or it’s uses, it is unlikely to be included within the investigative process.
The notion of criminal profiling being ‘mumbo-jumbo’ and on the same level as many people’s views on psychics has diminished significantly from the early years of profiling, however there are still many individuals who believe it is simply common sense and of no real value.
Criminal profiles are common sense but they are common sense from the point of view of personalities and resulting behaviours to an individual trained in this area of human behaviour. Without the knowledge and understanding of behaviours in different people, such information may not be something that can be deduced by other individuals working on a criminal case.
The Purpose and Uses of a Criminal Profile
The purpose of a criminal profile is to help a police investigation narrow down the search for the perpetrator of a crime. A profile which can provide an age range, type of employment, marital status and education and behavioural information can be of great benefit to police in their hunt, ensuring their investigative efforts are focused in the right area. If all investigators are aware of this profile they can be alert to potential suspects and possible links which all could aid the investigation.
A criminal profile however can go further than simply narrow down a field of suspects due to age and employment status. An understanding of the psychology of an offender can also bring insights into how they may have behaved at the crime scene. For example, whether they have taken items from the scene or from the victim directly, why they may have done this and what they may have done with them.
Often such items are taken as a reminder for the offender of that particular crime, commonly referred to as ‘souvenirs‘, and therefore they will be found somewhere accessible to them. If an offender has been arrested and such items are found, the exact items, where they were found and what the offender had done with them can provide more information to a profiler about the psychology of this offender. This is information that can be passed onto interviewing officers which can be used in trying to get the offender to open up about their crimes.
The value of profilers to interviewing officers can be great. An understanding of psychology, how different individuals may think about things, view their crimes or their victims, their attitudes, responses and behaviours can be of great benefit when trying to get an offender to open up.
Effective interviewing techniques are very important and could save many many hours in interviewing a suspect. Using psychology in such a way, different strategies for obtaining information for different offenders can be applied. A technique effective for one individual may be ineffective for another and a profiler can explain why that is and which route to go for.
James Brussel and the ‘Mad Bomber’ of New York
In one of the early and most famous cases of a criminal profile assisting in the solving of a crime was the ‘Mad Bomber’ of New York City between 1940 and 1956. Over 30 small bombs had been placed in various locations in the city, many in public areas, and police were struggling in identifying the bomber who by this time had been reigning terror in New York for 16 years. Remarkably, noone had been killed in the bomb blasts but many were injured and there was fear the next bomb would kill.
In 1956, James Brussel, a psychiatrist in New York, was asked to study the crime scene photos and investigation notes in case he could provide any assistance as to the type of individual they were looking for. What he came up with came as a surprise to most. A detailed criminal profile which stated the ‘bomber’ would be in his 50’s, he would be foreign and unmarried and he would live in Connecticut. He would be very neat in his appearance and have a particular personality liking everything in its place.
Curiously, Brussel stated when he was caught he would be wearing a double breasted jacket which would have the buttons neatly done up. Furthermore, this was a male who had a grudge against the power company where the first bomb was left, Con Edison. He was most probably a former employee who may have been injured on the job and is looking for revenge on the company who he blames.
Most of this profile while sounding exact, is information that can be deduced from the nature of his crimes. For example, the majority of bombers are male and the first target along with letters sent to the police declaring Con Edison would be brought to justice and they will “pay for their dastardly deeds” clearly suggest the company themselves are the source of the bombers anger.
Upon searching the employee records at Con Edison, one name stood out who matched Brussels profile. George Metesky had indeed been injured at work and had not received the compensation he believed he deserved. Furthermore, in a series of letters to the company after his disability claim was denied, he referred to their “dastardly deeds” .
George Metesky was arrested and confessed to planting the bombs. At the time of his arrest, he was indeed wearing a buttoned up double breasted jacket. He matched Brussel’s profile exactly. Criminal profiles are tools to help investigating officers solve crimes. By themselves they cannot solve a crime, but what they can do is assist and focus police investigations in the right direction.
They are the application of psychological knowledge about the personalities, actions, behaviours, drives and motivations within criminal psychology to build a picture of the traits of the individual who may have carried out the crime in question. While the scientific basis of criminal profiling is still in question and profiles are not always right, their usefulness within criminal investigations cannot be denied.
- All-about-forensic-psychology.com,. (2015). Interested in criminal profiling? Retrieved 28 August 2015.
- Personal.psu.edu,. (2015). Brief History of Psychology. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
- Profilesofmurder.com,. (2013). Profiling | Profiles of Murder. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
- Winderman, L (2004) Criminal Profiling; the reality behind the myth. American Psychological Association, Vol 35, No. 7, pp66.
- Winderman, L (2004) Does Profiling Really Work?. American Psychological Association, Vol 35, No. 7, pp67.
Criminal Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide Criminal Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide From the signals which give away we’re lying to psychologically profiling violent offenders, this exhaustive guide, written by UK experts is the perfect introduction.