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Forensic profiling is now at the cutting edge of police investigations – Sarah-Jane Winders investigates.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 16.38.21The field of criminal profiling has fallen victim to pop-culture perceptions, through its frequent depictions in Hollywood movies, television series and novels. Professor David Canter, internationally renowned crime psychologist, stated that the real practice has become embroiled in the myth and reality depicted in the different fictional mediums. The rise in popularity is evidenced by the observable increase in movies made with a serial-murderer theme; only 12 were made in the 1980s, while in excess of 270 in the 2000s. In parallel, the number of academic publications dealing with forensic profiling and serial murder has risen substantially in the past 40 years. The FBI received approximately 600 profiling requests in the 80s and that figure doubled the following decade.

Many researchers have stated that criminal profiling’s current prominence is as a result of media portrayals rather than through positive empirical results. In spite of its growth in popularity over the past 30 years, it has divided professionals in the field over the matter of its reliability, validity, and utility with researchers considering it still in its infancy as a professional tool. Where does this leave the practical application of profiling?

Forensic Profiling

Forensic profiling is commonly and historically associated with serial murder, dating back as early as the turn of the 20th century, to the case of Jack the Ripper. Certain crimes are traditionally considered optimal for forensic profiling; crimes such as serial rape, sexual homicide, child sexual abuse, serial arson and serial homicide, while property crimes, robbery or drug related crimes are considered unsuitable for profiling by some researchers (i.e. FBI), as such crimes reveal little about the offender’s personality. David Canter, in contrast, disagrees with limiting profiling to a small subset of crimes, asserting its applicability to all crime categories. However, profiling is frequently considered most useful in cases of serial homicide, as such crimes are among the most challenging to solve, often because the offenders’ motive may only be understood by themselves and not obvious to the investigative team.

The FBI Method

The dominant approach in the USA is the FBI method, known as behavioural profiling or crime scene analysis, which combines psychological factors and analysis of the evidence to formulate a psychological profile of the unidentified perpetrator. The rationale is that, an individual’s behaviour reflects that individual’s personality, and so on examination of the behaviour the investigator may establish what ‘type’ of individual is responsible for the crime. Robert Ressler, an FBI agent and author on psychological profiling, goes so far as to describe the crime scene as a fingerprint, unique to the offender and so can aid in their apprehension. The approach has been disparaged for being somewhat (unashamedly) instinct and intuition based. Common characteristics of a particular category of offender can be derived from analysing cases (e.g. homicide) and the aim of the investigator is not to be so accurate as to suggest a specific individual and so provide the identity of the offender, but to reduce the potential number of suspects.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 16.38.53The FBI typology places serial homicide offenders in three categories: disorganised asocial offenders, organised non-social offenders and ‘mixed’ offenders (offenders who could not easily be discriminated). However, research has indicated that the classification was more likely a continuum. In combination with this, FBI profilers make predictions about the gender, race, age and social class of the offender, which is considered a step too far by some researchers who believe you cannot predict these factors through evidence based profiling, and that this method can result in stereotyping. However, the practice is considered a heuristic, employed quickly to narrow the pool of suspects and it appears to have a high success rate to support its popularity. David Canter argued against the FBI method stating that it has no real theoretical basis and proposed that the classification system influences the interviewing of offenders, promoting circularity, and so predicting their own results. Canter’s investigative psychology framework aims to present a more objective approach to criminal profiling incorporating both behavioural and geographical aspects, finding common characteristics and creating profiles.

Alternative approaches to behavioural profiling include employing the use of computers and compiling large databases of offender information, and using statistics to infer the characteristics of an offender from the available evidence. Results at present are encouraging, with 80% of offender characteristics predicted correctly. These methods have been employed to verify the validity of existing typologies and ideally incorporate them into a more empirical framework. This is indicative of the current research in the area, making strides to provide an empirical grounding and merge the practical with the academic.

Geographical Method

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 16.39.01Modern geographical profiling attempts to narrow the search to where the offender lives or works. The geographical profilers aim is to discover the where of the criminal, while the psychological profiler attempts to uncover the who of the crime. This type of profiling developed from the notion that an offender lives and commits the offences within a given area. The investigative team will know the location of the offences (or where bodies were found), and the key is to find the offender’s anchor point or recognisable base (i.e. residence or place of work). The offender operates within an area defined by his home and local bases (e.g. bars or other places he/she may frequent). Researchers give different reasons for this; some suggesting the offender finds security in the familiarity, others emphasising the importance of local knowledge when planning offences. Even in cases of serial murder, crimes that can be highly emotive exhibiting a lack of control, the pattern of disposal will demonstrate rationality. Essentially, attempts to pick random sites will always present an inherent pattern. The FBI method also recognised the importance of routine in cases of homicide, the profiler states that given the location of the incident the offender had prior reason to be in the location, either residing or working as they were obviously on known territory. Geographical profiling can be extremely useful as a support device to focus the police investigation and not a map direct to the offender. Concurrently, researchers emphasise the need for a psychological profile to supplement the investigation.

The Utility

The field of forensic profiling is under scrutiny for not fulfilling the scientific parameters that modern investigation feels it should, and media portrayals leave it embroiled in a game of fact or fiction. However, the recent wealth of literature illustrates the desire in the area to provide an empirical foundation for it as an investigative tool. Given the current conclusive lack of evidence, it raises the question of why investigators still employ its techniques. One research study investigated the perceived validity and utility of forensic profiling among forensic psychologists and psychiatrists and found their responses counterintuitive, with participants finding profiling not a valid form of evidence while still supporting its usage. Similar findings arose in a Canadian study of police officers, showing support for its utility but scepticism about its validity.

The field of forensic profiling could definitely benefit from an empirical foundation, and separation from the myth portrayed in the media. It could benefit from greater transparency and the adoption of a standardized methodology. Research emphasises the importance of a multidisciplinary team to devise where the practical elements of profiling can merge successfully with the empirical and academic, as one cannot successfully work without the other. Profiling needs to clarify its abilities as an investigative tool, which cannot be so accurate as to suggest a specific individual or provide a map direct to the offender, nonetheless it can be employed as a tool to reduce the potential number of suspects. Even with 40 years of research, the field is still in its infancy as a professional tool and is slowly finding its way from art to science. 

Sarah-Jane Winders is an assistant psychologist and a post-graduate research student in the School of Psychology, Trinity College, Dublin


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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