What is criminal profiling

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
While there has been a recent bloom of interest within popular culture, criminal profiling has a
long history. One of the first criminal profiles was generated in 1956 by James Brussel. Brussel
constructed the first modern profile in response to a series of bombings attributed to an individual
known then as the “Mad Bomber”. 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 “Mad Bomber” matched
Brussel's description with a great deal of accuracy. Through this apparent success, this 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
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. 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 offenders 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 chance.
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
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 offenders
Formalized by the FBI, profiling consists of 6 stages
Profiling is considered an art and is not backed by scientific research. Academics often refer
to it as a “pseudoscience”.