FACT SHEET: Criminal Profiling

A European Association of Psychology and Law - Student Society Publication
August 2011
FACT SHEET: Criminal Profiling
Michael Wafler, B.A. honours student & Julia Shaw, PhD Candidate
What is criminal profiling?
Criminal profiling, also known as offender
profiling, is best understood as a series of
investigative techniques used to determine
the characteristics of an unknown criminal
offender. Profiling relies on the basic
premise that an individual’s personality and
mannerisms guide their everyday
behaviours, including their criminal actions.
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. Despite sounding valid in
principle, these practices, the technique
development, and the ways in which
profiling has been used to locate suspects, are
surrounded by controversy.
While there has been a recent bloom of
interest within popular culture, criminal
profiling actually has a long history. One of
the first criminal profiles was generated in
1956 by James Brussels. Brussels constructed
the first modern profile in response to a
series of bombings attributed to an
individual known then as the “Unabomber”.
Using his background in psychiatry, Brussel
made deductive predictions about the
offender based on his behaviours. In this
profile, Brussel provided surprisingly specific
descriptions regarding the characteristics of
the unknown offender. When finally
apprehended by the New York police, it was
found that the “Unabomber” matched
Brussels’ description with a great deal of
accuracy. Through this apparent success,
Brussels’ profile was heralded as a triumph,
spurring interest by the Federal Bureau of
Investigations. Intent on using and
developing these techniques, the FBI
formalized many of the methods used in
profiling today.
Pioneered by FBI Special Agent John
Douglas, modern traditional offender
profiling consists of six main steps; input,
decision process, crime assessment, criminal
profile formation, investigation, and
apprehension. Input refers to the acquisition
and organization of crime scene evidence.
Once the available evidence has been
established, decision processing categorizes
evidence into patterns, which are analyzed
for predictive characteristics. Crime
assessment involves reconstruction of the
crime to uncover offender motivation in
committing the crime. Once the required
data has been established, the profiler
consolidates the information and forms a
criminal profile. This profile is forwarded
to crime investigators and used as an aid to
further the investigation. Finally, in the
apprehension phase, the profiler continually
checks for profile accuracy against newly
uncovered evidence, especially if the
offender is apprehended and admits guilt.
Profilers also evaluate several other crime
components, specifically with regard to
serial crime. One crime feature commonly
associated with profiling is the Modus
Operandi (M.O), specific techniques utilized
by a criminal across their crimes.
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A European Association of Psychology and Law - Student Society Publication
October 2011
FACT SHEET: Criminal Profiling
Conversely, the M.O. can adapt and change
over time making it difficult to utilize in a
profiling. Many perpetrators of serial crime
engage in ritualistic behaviours, and these
repeat behaviours can contribute to the
cross-crime linkage by profilers and to
identification of the offender themselves.
Staging, the act of manipulating a crime
scene to hamper or re-direct investigation,
escalation of crime severity, and the time
and locations of the crimes also play key
roles in profile formation.
Art or science?
Unlike most professionally utilized
psychological measures and techniques,
methods of criminal profiling developed by
the FBI appear to have followed guidelines
lacking in proper methodology, and
research standards. Upon formation of the
FBI behavioural science unit, interviews
were conducted with a selection of American
serial killers aimed toward gathering
information to be used in analysis of future
crimes. Concerns have been raised about the
ways in which this data was collected. A
significant concern has also been raised
regarding the subjective nature of profile
construction, which often relies heavily on
personal experience and “common sense”,
rather than scientifically backed methods.
There is also concern about the tremendous
number of false alarms generated by
profilers. In other words, more often than
not, profilers are incorrect in the details they
generate about offenders thereby pointing
criminal investigators towards innocent
suspects. Finally, evidence strongly suggests
that trained profilers do not perform better
at predicting the characteristics of
unknown perpetrators than the general
public. Criminal profiling should be
considered a pseudoscientific technique until
empirical studies can support the notion that
profilers can actually predict the
characteristics of offenders above the level of
To date there is a lack of scientific evidence
in support of the techniques used in criminal
profiling, and the proclaimed successes of
criminal profilers. The unscientific basis of
profiling calls into question the validity of
the methods it has spawned, and the ways in
which these methods are used today.
Academic evaluation and criticism promotes
the need for further research and scientific
research on whether or not profiling can be a
useful tool in criminal investigations.
Quick summary:
Profilers try to determine characteristics of an unknown
offender, especially in suspected serial crimes
The Unabomber was one of the first successfully profiled
Formalized by the FBI, profiling and consists of 6 stages
Profiling is considered an art and is not backed by scientific
research. Academics often refer to it as a “pseudoscience”.
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A European Association of Psychology and Law - Student Society Publication
August 2011
FACT SHEET: Criminal Profiling
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involved in deriving background characteristics
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Interpreting the accuracy of offender profilers.
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10. Snook, B., Eastwood, J., Gendreau, P., Goggin,
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A European Association of Psychology and Law - Student Society Publication
October 2011
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