Criminal profiling is founded on a diverse history grounded in the study of criminal behavior, the study of mental illness, and the forensic sciences. It involves the inference of offender characteristics for investigative purposes, as well as for those that service the needs of the court. Criminal profiling methods tend to involve the use of either inductive or deductive reasoning, which has added to the confusion about the nature of criminal profiling in the popular media, as well as in the law enforcement community and the judicial system.

Profiling: A Brief History


The process of inferring distinctive personality characteristics of individuals responsible for committing criminal acts has commonly been referred to as ‘criminal profiling’. It has also been referred to, among other less common terms, as behavioral profiling, crime scene profiling, criminal personality profiling, offender profiling and psychological profiling. There is currently a general lack of uniformity or agreement in the application of these terms to any one profiling method. As a result of this, and the varied professions involved in the profiling process, these terms are used inconsistently and interchangeably. For our purposes, we will use the term criminal profiling.
A common aspect of the criminal profiling process is understanding and classifying criminal behavior,and by extension criminals themselves. The renowned Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso, is generally thought to have been of one of the first criminologists to attempt to classify criminals for statistical comparison. In 1876, Lombroso published his topic The Criminal Man. By comparing information about similar offenders, such as race, age, sex, physical characteristics, education and geographic region, Lombroso reasoned that the origins and motivations of criminal behavior could be better understood.
Lombroso studied 383 Italian criminals. His evolutionary and anthropologic theories about the origins of criminal behavior suggested that, based on his research, there were three major types of criminals:
• Born criminals: degenerate, primitive, lower evolutionary reversions in terms of physical characteristics.
• Insane criminals: those who suffered from mental and/or physical illnesses and deficiencies.
• Criminaloids: a large general class of offenders without specific characteristics, not afflicted by recognizable mental defects, but whose mental and emotional make-up predisposed them to criminal behavior under certain circumstances; a concept which has been compared to the diagnosis of psychopathic personality that came later from the psychiatric community.
The suggestion of Lombroso’s work was that certain types of criminals could be visually identified by investigators, merely by recognizing their criminal features. According to his theories, there are 18 physical characteristics that are indicative of a ‘born criminal’, when a person has at least five or more. While this particular theory may seem absurd to some in light of modern wisdom, the theory of the born criminal has never been abandoned. For example, there are still those engaged in similar research regarding the structure and composition of the human brain, rather than external human physical characteristics, and its relationship to predicting who is a criminal and who is not. Similarly, geneticists continue to study human genes that may correlate with criminal potential and disposition.

Whitechapel: the forensic pathologists

In the late 1800s, statistical comparison and classification of shared physical characteristics were not the only way that criminal characteristics were being reasoned and inferred for the purposes of criminal investigation. During the Whitechapel murders in Great Britain in 1888, Dr George B Phillips, the divisional police surgeon, engaged in a more direct method of inferring criminal characteristics: not by comparing the characteristics of statistically averaged offenders, but by carefully examining the wounds of a particular offender’s victims. That is to say, by examining the behavior of a particular criminal with a particular victim. For example, Dr Phillips noted that injuries to one of the Whitechapel victims, Annie Chapman, indicated what he felt was evidence of professional skill and knowledge in their execution. In particular, he was referring to the postmortem removal of some of Annie Chapman’s organs, and what he felt was the cleanliness and preciseness of the incisions involved.
Whatever the basis of his inferences regarding the unknown offender’s level of skill, and despite its dubious accuracy given modern understanding of wound patterns in the case, the implication of this type of interpretation is very straightforward. As Dr Wynne E Baxter, Coroner for the South Eastern District of Middlesex, stated to Dr Phillips during a coroner’s inquest into the death of Annie Chapman, ‘The object of the inquiry is not only to ascertain the cause of death, but the means by which it occurred. Any mutilation which took place afterwards may suggest the character of the man who did it.’ Behavior, they understood, suggests personality characteristics.
At the time of the Whitechapel murders, coroners were required to inquire into the nature, character and size of all wounds and to document them thoroughly (though not necessarily by photograph). This practice speaks to the value placed, even then, on what today may be referred to as wound pattern analysis. It is extremely unlikely that the Whitechapel murders are the first crimes where those involved in the investigation utilized wound pattern analysis. However, the investigation does offer some of the earliest written documentation of the types of inference drawn from violent, aberrant, predatory criminal behavior by those involved in criminal investigations. Today, wound pattern analysis is still considered by many to be an important part of the criminal profiling process.

Profiling in the 1900s: the psychiatrists

In the twentieth century, the work of American psychiatrist Dr James A Brussel of Greenwich Village, New York was considered by many to have advanced the thinking behind the criminal profiling process significantly. As a clinician, his approach to profiling was diagnostic. Dr Brussels’s method included the diagnosis of an unknown offender’s mental disorders from behaviors evident in the crime scenes. He would infer the characteristics of that unknown offender from his own experiences with patients who shared similar disorders. He also subscribed to the opinion that certain mental illnesses were associated with certain physical builds, not unlike the theories of Lombroso a century before. As a result, an unknown offender’s physical characteristics were included in Dr Brussel’s profiles of unsolved cases.
During the 1940s and 1950s, a ‘mad bomber’ terrorized the city of New York, setting off at least 37 bombs in train stations and theaters. Dr Brussel made an analysis of the case. He determined that the man responsible for the crimes was paranoid, hated his father, was obsessively loved by his mother, lived in the state of Connecticut, was of average build, middle-aged, foreign born, Roman Catholic, single, lived with his mother or sister, and wore a buttoned, double-breasted suit. When the police arrested George Metesky for the bombings in 1957, Brussels’s profile was thought by many to be very accurate, right down to the suit.
Between June 1962 and January 1964, 13 sexual strangulation-homicides were committed in the city of Boston, Massachusetts and were determined to be related. Traditional investigative efforts by law enforcement to develop viable suspects and identify the ‘Boston strangler’ were unsuccessful. A profiling committee composed of a psychiatrist, a gynecologist, an anthropologist and other professionals was brought together to create what was referred to as a ‘psychiatric profile’ of the type of person responsible for the killings.
The profiling committee came to the opinion that the homicides were the work of two separate offenders. They based this opinion on the fact that one group of victims was of older women, and that one group of victims was of younger women. The profiling committee also felt that the psychosexual behavior differed between the victim groups. They felt that the older victims were being strangled and murdered by a man who was raised by a domineering and seductive mother, that he was unable to express hatred towards his mother, and as a result directed it towards older women. They felt that he lived alone, and that if he was able to conquer his domineering mother he could express love like normal people. They were further of the opinion that a homosexual male, probably an acquaintance, had killed the younger group of victims.
Not everyone agreed with the profiling committee. Law enforcement invited Dr Brussel into the investigation in April 1964, in the hope that he would provide them with the same types of insights that helped solve the mad bomber case in New York. Dr Brussel disagreed with the profiling committee. He was of the opinion that the homicides were the work of a single offender. But by then the killings had stopped and the profiling committee was disbanded.
In November 1964, Albert DeSalvo was arrested for the ‘green man’ sex crimes. He confessed to his psychiatrist that he was the Boston strangler. Since he ‘fitted’ the profile that Dr Brussel had provided law enforcement so closely, they identified him as their offender and closed the case without filing charges. In 1973, while serving a sentence for the green man crimes, a fellow inmate stabbed DeSalvo to death in his cell. As DeSalvo was never tried for, or convicted of, the crimes committed by the Boston strangler, neither profile has ever been validated.

The FBI: a multidisciplinary approach

It was also during the 1960s that the American Howard Teten began to develop his approach to criminal profiling while still at the San Leandro Police Department in California. His inspiration for the work included Dr Hans Gross, an Austrian magistrate. Teten studied under, and was further inspired by, Dr Paul Kirk, the internationally renowned criminalist, Dr Breyfocal, the then San Francisco Medical Examiner, and Dr Douglas Kelly, a psychiatrist noted for his work in the Nuremberg war trials. They had been his instructors at the School of Criminology, at the University of California, Berkeley during the late 1950s. A multidisciplinary understanding of forensic science, medicolegal death investigation and psychiatric knowledge became the cornerstone of Teten’s investigative skills early on, and shaped his approach to criminal profiling.
As a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Howard Teten initiated his profiling program in 1970. He taught profiling as an investigative aid to be used in conjunction with other investigative tools. Teten taught his first profiling course, called ‘Applied Criminology’, to the FBI National Academy in 1970. Later that same year, Teten rendered his first actual profile as an FBI Agent in Amarillo, Texas.
In 1970, Teten also teamed with Pat Mullany, then assigned to the New York Division of the FBI, to teach the abnormal psychological aspects of criminal profiling. Mullany and Teten taught together at several other schools around the country during the next year while Mullany was stationed in New York. They would dissect a crime, Mullany would talk about a range of abnormal behavior, and Teten would discuss how that behavior could be determined from the evidence found at the scene.
In 1972, the US government opened the new FBI Academy, and Teten requested that Mullany be transferred there. Shortly after coming to the new FBI Academy, Teten and Mullany applied their concepts to the first FBI hostage negotiation guidelines. In 1974 and 1975, Mullany negotiated several major hostage situations successfully with these new techniques. These adaptations, based upon criminal profiling techniques, were the first to be taught to all FBI negotiators. They were later modified and expanded, facilitating the creation of what would become known as the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU).
The FBI’s BSU was restructured in the late 1990s, and currently operates as part of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
The FBI, however, is not the only agency in the United States, or in the world for that matter, with a dedicated profiling unit. In the United States, profiling units of various capabilities can be found in a number of federal agencies, as well as numerous state and large city law enforcement agencies. Internationally, law enforcement agencies with dedicated profiling units can be found in countries such as Australia, Canada, England, the Netherlands and South Africa. Additionally, there are a number of independent individuals and organizations involved in criminal profiling around the world. Independent profilers tend to be professionals with investigative, forensic and/or behavioral training, education and experience who work with law enforcement agencies and attorneys.

Profiling Methodology

Contrary to a popular belief that is informed by both fictional and nonfictional media sources, there is nothing mystical or magical about the criminal profiling process. It does not involve psychic ability, and does not rely upon the supernatural in any way. Still thought of as more of an art than a science, criminal profiling is founded in the psychological, sociological and forensic sciences.

Purposes of criminal profiling

A number of separate, related professions have been involved in criminal profiling either directly or indirectly. The education and experience of criminal profilers over the years has reflected this diversity. This may be due to the fact that profiling has not traditionally been a career in itself for most of those who profile, but rather a single tool among many that are available for analyzing, understanding and/or investigating criminal behavior.
Regardless of the background of the person rendering the criminal profile, there are generally two separate applications of the profiling process, each with its own set of goals and guidelines. These are investigative applications and courtroom applications. The profiling process itself, however, is generally the same, regardless of the intended application.

The investigative applications of criminal profiling

involve the analysis of behavior of unknown offenders for known crimes. This takes place before a suspect has been generated, and often after all other investigative leads have been exhausted.

Investigative goals

• To reduce the viable suspect pool in a criminal investigation, and to develop the most viable suspects from that reduced pool.
• To assist in the linkage of potentially related crimes by identifying unique crime scene indicators and behavior patterns (i.e. modus operandi and signature aspects).
• To assist in assessing the potential for escalation of nuisance criminal behavior to more serious or more violent crimes (i.e. harassment, stalking, voyeurism).
• To provide investigators with relevant leads and strategies
• To help keep the overall investigation on track and undistracted.
The courtroom applications of criminal profiling involve the analysis of behavior of known crimes for which there is a suspect or a defendant. Profiling takes place in preparation for trial (criminal, penalty and/or appeal phases of the trial are all appropriate times to use profiling techniques).

Courtroom goals

• To assist in the process of evaluating the nature and value of forensic evidence relating to victim and offender behavior.
• To help gain insight into offender fantasy and motivations.
• To help gain insight into offender state of mind through behavior before, during or after the commission of a crime (i.e. levels of planning, remorse, precautionary acts, etc.).
• To assist in the linkage of crimes by virtue of unique signature behaviors.

Profiling methods

There have been essentially two ways of reasoning in the criminal profiling process. One has been called inductive, and refers to the comparative process that is most like the development of psychological syndromes and average offender types. The other has been called deductive, and refers to a forensic evidence-based investigative process of reasoning about the behavior patterns of a particular offender.
Inductive profiling Inductively rendered profiles are often equated with psychological syndromes. It is important to understand that a syndrome is essentially a cluster of related symptoms. The clinical diagnosis of a syndrome involves comparing an individual’s behavior with the behaviors of others in similar circumstances that have been studied in the past. The mental health community christened the first psychological syndrome in 1980, when posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was officially recognized by inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Since that time, the investigative term ‘profile’ has slowly become synonymous with the psychological term ‘syndrome’ in the eyes of the legal community. This has occurred because of the way inductive criminal profiles have been constructed and presented in court.
An inductive criminal profile is a set of offender characteristics that are reasoned, by statistical inference, to be shared by offenders who commit the same type of crime. An inductive profile is best understood as an average. It is the product of statistical or comparative analysis and results in educated generalizations, hence the use of the term inductive. It is very much like a syndrome in its construct.
Inductively rendered criminal profiles include those based upon both formal and informal studies of known, incarcerated criminal populations. They also include criminal profiles based solely upon practical experience, where anecdotal data are recalled by an investigator and used to form the basis for reasoning regarding specific offender characteristics. The result of this process is a boilerplate, an average profile consisting of generalizations about the characteristics of a certain type of criminal.
Example of inductive reasoning A 24-year-old white female is raped in her apartment on the first floor. A given study of 20 serial rapists indicates that they tend to attack within their own age range and do not normally attack outside of their own race. Therefore it is inferred that the offender responsible for the unsolved rape is likely a white male and approximately 24 years old.
A major advantage of an inductive profile is that one can be brought to bear in an investigation relatively quickly, and does not require the application of specialized knowledge. A major disadvantage is that is tends to be brief and nonspecific.
Deductive profiling A deductive criminal profile is a set of offender characteristics that are reasoned from the convergence of physical and behavioral evidence patterns within a crime or a series of related crimes. It is referred to as a deductive process because it involves reasoning in which conclusions about offender characteristics follow from the arguments presented in terms of physical and behavioral evidence.
According to those who use deductive techniques, the information used to infer a deductive criminal profile includes forensic evidence, victimology and crime scene characteristics.
Forensic evidence A competent forensic analysis must be performed before this type of profiling can begin, to insure the integrity of the behavior and the crime scene characteristics that are to be analyzed. All of the behavior between the victim and the offender that is to be used in the profile must be established through crime reconstruction efforts. This can be done using accepted reconstructive techniques, such as wound pattern analysis, bloodstain pattern analysis, bullet trajectory analysis, entomological analysis, or the results of any other physical evidence-based forensic analysis performed. It can also include the use of corroborated victim and witness statements.
Victimology This is the thorough study and analysis of victim characteristics. The characteristics of an individual offender’s victims can lend themselves to inferences about offender motive, modus operandi and the determination of offender signature behaviors. Part of victimology is risk assessment. Not only is the profiler interested in the amount of risk a victim’s lifestyle places them in routinely, but the amount they were in at the time of the attack, and the amount of risk the offender was willing to take to acquire them.
Crime scene characteristics These include, among many others, method of approach, method of attack, methods of control, location type, primary scene/secondary scene determination, nature and sequence of sexual acts, materials used, verbal activity, elements of planning and precautionary acts. Crime scene characteristics are determined from the forensic evidence and the victimology. In cases involving a related series of offenses, such as in serial rape or serial homicide, crime scene characteristics are determined individually and analyzed as they evolve, or fail to evolve, over time. An offender’s crime scene characteristics help the profiler discriminate between modus operandi behaviors and signature behaviors, as well as lending themselves to inferences about offender state of mind, planning, fantasy and motivation.
Example of deductive reasoning A 24-year-old white female is raped in her apartment on the first floor at 12.30 a.m. on a weeknight. She lives alone. She had all of the doors locked; the rapist gained access through an unlocked window. He wore gloves, wore a mask, bound her with duct-tape he had brought with him, used a knife to control her throughout the attack, and during the rape wore a condom that he had brought with him. He also called her by name several times during the attack, but she did not recognize his voice. After raping the victim, he made a quick search of the apartment and robbed her of credit cards, jewelry and some cash she had hidden in a drawer. Therefore:
• By virtue of the gloves and the mask it can be inferred that the rapist was concerned about leaving behind fingerprints and revealing his identity to the victim.
• By virtue of the condom it can be inferred that the offender planned to commit the rape.
• By virtue of the skill evidenced in the robbery by the swift search for valuables and the precautionary acts, it can be inferred that the offender may have committed this type of crime in the past.
• By virtue of the condom it can be inferred that the offender may have committed rape or sexual assault in the past.
• By virtue of the fact that the offender used her name and wore a mask it can be inferred that the offender is someone that she might recognize, an acquaintance perhaps, or that the offender has preselected the victim as a target and has been surveilling her for some time in advance.
A major advantage of the deductive profiling process is that it provides very pointed insight relevant to a specific pattern of criminal behavior. Another major advantage of the deductive profiling process is that it can take into account offender behavior as it changes over time, because the profile can be refined as new behavior becomes evident throughout an investigation. Major disadvantages of the deductive profiling process include the fact that it takes a great deal of time and effort, and that it requires a great deal of multidisciplinary training and knowledge on the part of the profiler. It is, furthermore, only as reliable as the information that it is based upon.

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