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Offender profiling

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Offender profiling, also known as criminal profiling, is an investigative tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify likely suspects (descriptive offender profiling) and analyze patterns that may predict future offenses and/or victims (predictive offender profiling). Offender profiling dates back to 1888 and the spree of Jack the Ripper, and the profiling theory describes how profiling will ideally work. Current applications include predictive profiling, sexual assault offender profiling, and case linkage (using profiling to identify common factors in offenses and to help with suspect identification).


Goals of criminal profiling include providing law enforcement with a social and psychological assessment of the offender; providing a "psychological evaluation of belongings found in the possession of the offender" (p. 10); and offering suggestions and strategies for the interviewing process. Ainsworth (2001) identified four main approaches to offender profiling: geographical, investigative psychology, typological, and clinical profiling.

Five steps in profiling include analyzing the criminal act and comparing it to similar crimes in the past, an in-depth analysis of the actual crime scene, considering the victim’s background and activities for possible motives and connections, considering other possible motives, and developing a description of the possible offender that can be compared with previous cases. Notable profilers in history include Walter C. Langer, James Brussel, Howard Teten, Robert Keppel, Richard Walter, John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and David Canter.

Entertainment media has depicted the practical use of offender profiling through television shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Profiler, Criminal Minds, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, and the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. Unlike these and other popular media portrayals, offender profiling is just one of the tools, investigative methods, and techniques available to law enforcement personnel. Offender profiling is still controversial and subject to debate and varied opinions about the accuracy of, effectiveness of, evidentiary support for, and scientific validity and reliability of this investigative tool.


Offender profiling is a method of identifying the most likely type of person that could have committed a crime based on evidence and information found at the crime scene along with specific characteristics of the crime itself. It is not a method for finding the specific person who committed the crime, instead it describes the type of person that most likely committed the crime. Various aspects of the criminal's personality makeup are determined from his or her choices before, during, and after the crime. This information is combined with other relevant details and physical evidence, and then compared with the characteristics of known personality types and mental abnormalities to develop a practical working description of the offender.

Psychological profiling may be described as a method of suspect identification which seeks to identify a person's mental, emotional, and personality characteristics (as manifested in things done or left at the crime scene). There are two major assumptions made when it comes to offender profiling: behavioral consistency and homology. Behavior consistency is the use of linkage analysis in order to find similar cases that have little evidence and link them to one offender because of the similarities that are present. Homology is the idea that similar crimes are committed by similar offenders that possess similar characteristics.

One type of criminal profiling is referred to as linkage analysis. Gerard N. Labuschagne defines linkage analysis as "a form of behavioral analysis that is used to determine the possibility of a series of crimes as having been committed by one offender." Gathering many aspects of the offender’s crime pattern such as modus operandi (MO), ritual or fantasy-based behaviors exhibited, and the signature of the offender, help to establish a basis for a linkage analysis. An offender’s modus operandi is his or her habits or tendencies before, during, and/or after the killing of the victim. An offender’s signature is the unique similarities in each of his or her kills. Mainly, linkage analysis is used when physical evidence, such as DNA, cannot be collected.

Labuschagne states that in gathering and incorporating these aspects of the offender’s crime pattern, investigators must engage in five assessment procedures: (1) obtaining data from multiple sources; (2) reviewing the data and identifying significant features of each crime across the series; (3) classifying the significant features as either MO and/or ritualistic; (4) comparing the combination of MO and ritual/fantasy-based features across the series to determine if a signature exists; and (5) compiling a written report highlighting the findings.

There are three leading approaches in the area of offender profiling: the criminal investigative approach, the clinical practitioner approach, and the scientific statistical approach. The criminal investigative approach is what is used law enforcement and more specifically by the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) within the FBI. The BAU "assists law enforcement agencies by their review and assessment of a criminal act, by interpreting the offender's behavior during the crime and the interactions between the offender and the victim during the commission of the crime and as expressed in the crime scene." The clinical practitioner approach focuses on looking at each case as unique, making the approach very individualistic. One practitioner, Turco, believed that all violent crimes were a result of the mother-child struggle where female victims represent the offender's mother. This is also recognized as the psychodynamic approach. Another practitioner, Copson, outlined some principles for profiling which include being custom made, interactive and reflexive. By following these principles, the profile should include advice that is unique and not from a stereotype, should be easy to understand for all levels of intelligence, and all elements in the profile should influence one another. The Scientific approach relies heavily on the multivariate analysis of behaviors and any other information from the crime scene that could lead to the offender's characteristics or psychological processes. According to this approach, elements of the profile are developed by comparing the results of the analysis to those of previously caught offenders.

Offender profiling is also known as criminal profiling, criminal personality profiling, criminological profiling, behavioral profiling, or criminal investigative analysis.


In modern criminology, offender profiling is generally considered the "third wave" of investigative science. The first wave was the study of clues, pioneered by Scotland Yard in the 19th century, the second wave was the study of crime itself (frequency studies and the like), and this third wave is the study of the psyche of the criminal.

Profiling techniques existed as early as the Middle Ages, with the inquisitors trying to "profile" heretics. The first offender profile was assembled by detectives of the Metropolitan Police on the personality of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who had murdered a series of prostitutes in the 1880s. Police surgeon Thomas Bond was asked to give his opinion on the extent of the murderer's surgical skill and knowledge. Bond's assessment was based on his own examination of the most extensively mutilated victim and the post mortem notes from the four previous canonical murders.

In his notes, dated November 10, 1888, Dr. Bond mentioned the sexual nature of the murders coupled with elements of apparent misogyny and rage. Dr. Bond also tried to reconstruct the murder and interpret the behavior pattern of the offender and came up with a “profile” - signature personality traits of the offender - to assist police in their investigation. Bond's basic profile included that “The murderer must have been a man of physical strength and great coolness and daring... subject to periodic attacks of homicidal and erotic mania. The characters of the mutilations indicate that the man may be in a condition sexually, that may be called Satyriasis”

In 1912, a psychologist in Lackawanna, New York delivered a lecture in which he analyzed an unknown criminal who was suspected of having murdered a local boy named Joey Joseph. Based on the postcards which had been used to taunt the Lackawanna Police and the Joseph family, the profile ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of J. Frank Hickey. In the first half of the 20th century, James Brussel was called upon to analyze the information on the Mad Bomber in New York City, and he created an accurate profile of the offender. The FBI then worked to develop a technique for profiling, based on the process used by Brussel. As time, the nature of crime, and knowledge of human motives and behaviors evolved, and with the growing addition of forensic science, profiling, too, is changing.

The coding framework first developed to evaluate profiles was based on Toulmin's work in the 1950s. Toulmin’s work (1958), originally based on the analysis of philosophical and legal rhetoric, proposed that arguments could be broken down into various component parts to enable researchers to scrutinize the strengths and weaknesses of various aspects of any given claim. He suggested that arguments contain six interrelated components: (1) the claim, (2) the strength of the claim, (3) the grounds supporting the claim, (4) the warrant, (5) the backing, and (6) the rebuttal.

Current practice

Today, offender profiling is only one tool in an investigator’s toolkit. Contrary to media portrayal, other law enforcement skills such as evidence collection, witness statements, and problem-solving remain important in tracking and arresting suspects, or solving crime problems. Premises of profiling include behavior as predictable, and people as creatures of habit.

Steps of profile development

The BAU and FBI have six stages to developing a criminal profile:

Profiling inputs

This involves studying all the evidence or any information related to the crime itself, but does not include information on the suspect(s) because this could lead to prejudice in the profile. They take analysis of the four different phases of profiling.

According to Gregg O. McCrary, "the basic premise is that behavior reflects personality". In a murder investigation, criminologists are concerned with the four different phases of crime.

  1. Antecedent: This phase is concerned with the murderer's premeditation of the act. What plan and motivation did the perpetrator have.
  2. Method and manner: This includes the demographics of victims as well as the method of killing them.
  3. Body disposal: This phase examines the consistencies and methods of disposal.
  4. Post-offense behavior: This is the review of the murderer's response to the investigation and media.

Sexual crime is analyzed in much the same way but is supplemented with the additional information that comes from a living victim.

An additional proposed phase of criminal profiling is case linkage. Case linkage refers to the process of determining whether or not there are discrete connections between two or more previously unrelated cases through crime scene analysis. It involves establishing and comparing the physical evidence, victimology, crime scene characteristics, modus operandi (MO), and signature behaviors between each of the cases under review. It has the purpose of helping to direct investigative resources as well as helping to establish legal connection between crimes.

Decision process models

This stage takes the profiling inputs from stage 1 and studies them and organizes them into a particular order, in order to find patterns. Details of the crime such as type, the victim, offender's motivation, and risk of offender being caught are also analyzed at this stage.

Crime assessment

The crime is recreated so as to determine the sequence of events that took place and the interaction of those involved. Whether the crime was organized or disorganized is also determined.

Criminal profiling

At this stage, the offender's background, physical characteristics, habits, beliefs, values, and previous behaviors are analyzed based on what was when analyzing the crime scene. Recommendations from the profilers are made as to how to continue investigating the crime in a way that will lead to catching the offender. Ainsworth (2001) identified that there are four main approaches to offender profiling. The geographical approach is when the patterns are analyzed in regard to timing and location of the crime scene in order to determine where the offender lives and works. Investigative psychology is the approach that focuses on the use of psychological theories of analysis to determine the characteristics of the offender by looking at the presented offending behavior and style of offense. The typological approach looks at specific characteristics of the crime scene to then categorize the offender according to the various ‘typical’ characteristics. The clinical approach to offender profiling is when the understanding of psychiatry and clinical psychology is used to determine whether the offender is suffering from mental illness of various psychological abnormalities.


Applying the profile to the investigation. This can include the use of the predictive profiling. Predictive profiling includes predicting when and where a serial offender might commit his/her next crime, or which of a pool of suspects is most likely to commit an additional offense. In sexual assault cases, victim behavior and recollection of the attacker’s words, smell, mannerisms, and other identifiable traits can help police with suspect identification. And case linkage uses profiling techniques to connect seemingly unrelated crimes to a single suspect or group of suspects.


This final stage looks at how accurate and successful the profile was in catching the offender.

Notable profilers

Throughout the 20th century, there have been many prominent figures in offender profiling. In 1943, Walter C. Langer developed a profile of Adolf Hitler that hypothesized his response to losing the war. James Brussel was a psychiatrist who rose to fame by creating an accurate profile that led to the capture of New York City's Mad Bomber in 1956. He continued to work with NYPD for 15 years earning him the name "The Sherlock Holmes of the Couch".

In 1972, the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI was formed by Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten; they increased the abilities of detectives by examining the evidence for signs of mental disorders and other traits of the perpetrators. After successes including identification of serial killers by their "souvenirs", this system of techniques grew into the modern Criminal Investigative Analysis Program. Following Teten's departure, John Douglas and Robert Ressler created a typology of sex murderers and formed the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime which further studied behavioral patterns and characteristics that advanced offender profiling as a science.

Investigations of notorious serial killers Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer were performed in 1974 by Robert Keppel and psychologist Richard Walter. They went on to develop the four subtypes of violent crime and the Hunter Integrated Telemetry System (HITS) database which compiled characteristics of violent crime for research.  


Offender profiling is not without problems or those who say it is invalid. Incorrect information from profiling can lead to false positives or false negatives. Investigators may find a suspect who appears to fit an incorrect profile and ignore or stop investigating other leads. The opposite of the false positive is the false negative: the profile yields incorrect information which would cause investigators to ignore a suspect who is actually guilty.

Some profilers such as Brent Turvey, as quoted by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker have questioned its scientific validity. Many profilers and FBI agents, such as Turvey, are not psychologists, and some researchers who looked at their work found methodological flaws.

Although criminal profiling is quite popular and is often used as a tool in criminal investigations, it lacks empirical evidence to support its use. In a review by Eastwood et al. (2006), existing research on the validity of criminal profiling was analyzed, to determine whether this technique can be counted on to aid in criminal investigations. One of the studies that was noted in the review was by Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990), and involved asking different groups of people, including actual profilers, university students, police detectives, and clinical psychologists, to create a profile based on details about a particular crime. The results showed that the trained criminal profilers did not do any better than the other groups in creating an accurate profile which could predict who the culprit was. Similar results were obtained in another study, which assessed police officers, psychologists, students, psychics, and profilers on their ability to create a predictive profile. Again, results showed that profilers were not significantly better at creating a profile than any of the other groups. From these results, Eastwood et al. concluded that there is no compelling evidence that criminal profilers are more capable of predicting the characteristics and traits of a criminal than those who are not trained in the field. Thus, if criminal profiling cannot be shown to be a valid instrument for narrowing down the suspect pool and potentially targeting a guilty individual, it is questionable whether it should be used in investigations and courtrooms at all.

Besides its validity, other aspects of criminal profiling are problematic as well. Snook et al. (2008) outline several problems with the practice. First, the typologies that are used in criminal profiling have not been empirically shown to be accurate in matching the behavior of criminals. The practice of criminal profiling is based on the psychological theory that underlying dispositions are what make individuals engage in criminal behavior. It is now known that this theory is flawed, but it is still a central component of profiling.

Three psychologists from the Universities of Liverpool and Hull are questioning the basic presumption that one can draw conclusions about a person from a single instance of behaviour under such special circumstances. "The notion that particular configurations of demographic features can be predicted from an assessment of particular configurations of specific behaviors occurring in short-term, highly traumatic situations seems an overly ambitious and unlikely possibility. Thus, until such inferential processes can be reliably verified, such claims should be treated with great caution in investigations and should be entirely excluded from consideration in court."

Critics of the practice of offender profiling have mainly contended that few studies have produced clear, quantifiable, evidence of a link between crime scene actions (A) and offender characteristics (C), a necessary supposition of the A to C paradigm proposed by Canter (1995). However, recent research by Goodwill, Lehmann, Beauregard and Andrei (2014) has revealed compelling evidence of links between clusters of crime scene behaviours and offender characteristics. Goodwill et al. suggest that the failure of some previous research to find such links was based on a failure in those studies to examine offender behaviour as part of a dynamic decision-making process, or action phases of the offence. Their study an "Action Phase Approach to Offender Profiling" sought to identify and model the decision-making (action) phases of an offender based on their choice of behaviour and relate these behaviours to known characteristics of the offender.


Offender profiling Wikipedia

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