‘Offender profiling’ is a general term that has no accepted definition and varies in its use between the USA and the UK. It is based on three strands of expertise: statistical analysis of crime data, behavioural science, and detective expertise. Psychological profiling was in fact used in the Second World War to profile enemy leaders to see if they had weaknesses that could be exploited – for example, William Langer’s profile of Hitler and his accurate prediction of suicide after defeat (Langer, 1972).
Traditionally police collected hard evidence from the scene of a crime, such as blood, saliva and semen. Other less concrete indicators might be ignored, such as the choice of victim, what was said or not said, the location and the nature of the assault. Psychologists help police to interpret these clues. The basic assumption of offender profiling is that the offender’s behaviour at the crime scene reflects something about them as a person. It leaves a ‘psychological fingerprint,’ particularly where there is a pattern over a number of crimes.
For example, tying up a victim suggests a need for control. The aim is to go beyond the facts and develop hypotheses about the offender. The information used includes the analysis of the crime scene, details of the victim and current knowledge about offenders from research.
Holmes (1989) suggests that profiling is most useful when the crime reflects psychopathology, such as sadistic assaults. 90% of profiling is for murder or rape, but can be used for arson, burglary, and robbery. Homant and Kennedy (1998) see crime-scene profiling as including psychological profiling of offenders, geographical profiling (the area of the crime and where the offender may live) and, in the case of murder, ‘equivocal death analysis’ (how the murder was committed, and a ‘psychological autopsy of the victim).
The overall aim is to look for patterns and to compare them to what is known about certain crimes and criminals.
The British Approach was developed independently of the police authorities from the separate work of David Canter and Paul Britton. There is some debate about which case was the first in Britain to use profiling. Many see Paul Britton’s help in the 1983 case of Paul Bostock as the first time a psychologist was used to profile the offender. This case involved two separate murders with ‘black magic’ associations found near the victims. Britton gave a limited profile to the police of a young, isolated man, who had access to knives, with an obsession for ‘black magic’ (what Britton called a belief dysfunction). The police eventually arrested Bostock, who was a nineteen-year-old loner, a meat factory worker, with a house full of ‘black magic’ items. He did not confess to the murders, so Britton advised a line of questioning based on Bostock’s fantasies, which proved fruitful.
The first well-known case in Britain to involve direct help to the police in profiling came in 1986, when David Canter started to help in the case of the ‘Railway Rapist’. This case involved 24 sexual assaults near railways in North London, and three murders (between 1982 and 1986). All the crimes showed signs of having the same offender. The first attacks were rapes, which initially were thought to be the work of two offenders together. Then the pattern became clear, and with the later murders, it was definitely one man. Canter was able to analyse the details and drew up the profile.
David Canter (1994) believes that criminals, like most people behave consistently. An analysis of the pattern of behaviour observed over a number of crimes committed by a serial offender will give clues about the non-offending everyday behaviour of the criminal. We all operate within a social context and so Canter believes that offences are not separate behaviours from the rest of the offenders life but rather are directly linked to their everyday interactions. Interviews with victims about things that were said at the time of the crime could give an indication of how the criminal normally interacts with others.
For example, a rapist who is hesitant and apologetic to his victim could well be committing the rape because he does not know how to go about forming a genuine close relationship with a woman in his everyday life. The British approach involves advising police officers about correlation’s between sets of data, such as time, place and choice of victim. Canter identified five characteristics which, they believe can aid investigations –
Canter believes that during the crime vital clues are left behind and the distinctive personality of the offender shows through in some ways. Thus, it is thought that the way in which the crime is committed is in part a reflection of the everyday traits and behaviour of the individual. The interaction between the offender and the victim is thus studied closely and categorised. Canter believes that by this careful study of offence behaviour, patterns can be established and variations between offenders identified. However unlike the FBI approach, Canter does not attempt to place offenders into rigid typologies, but rather suggests that their behaviour will mirror other aspects of their day-to-day life.
Canter (1994) describes his task as picking from the shadows left by the criminals, those consistent patterns in behaviour. What happens during the offence can give clues to the non-offending parts of their lives. There will also be evidence from the interaction between the victim and the offender because we are social beings even in such unusual situations. For example, murderers who kill a stranger without any interaction are likely to live a solitary life (Canter, 1989). Other important factors may be the choice of victim, location, nature of the crime and what is/isn’t said, and forensic awareness of the offender, like rapists who force victims to bathe after the attack to remove any evidence of pubic hairs.
One aspect of profiling that is often overlooked is the methodological collection of data and statistical analysis. Often the profiler is no more than a glorified statistician. Canter and Heritage (1990) combed through the victim statements of 66 UK sexual assaults and with sophisticated statistics were able to identify clear patterns in the form of the attack.
It is possible to group how the victim is treated in three ways, each giving a clue to the offender.
This emphasis on statistical patterns has led to the creation of a database called CATCH’EM (Central Analytical Team Collating Homicide Expertise and Management). The database contains details of over 4,000 child murders, which allows police officers to make statistical predictions about the killer. For example, 62% of killers of females under seventeen are single, but 83% if the victim is male and under sixteen. If the child’s body is found without sexual interference, there is around a 70% likelihood that the killer is the guardian or parent, but when there is sexual interference, this figure drops to 1% -2 % (Murder in Mind, 1993).
In the UK there seems to have been some resistance to profiling by the police because psychologists have been viewed as ‘outsiders’ and not being able to offer anything more than what a could practitioner (eg, detective) could.
Geberth (1983) feels that ‘experts’ have very little to say compared with what experienced police officers are likely to work out for themselves. Holmes (1989) reports that out of 192 offender In the UK the ability of profiling to accurately identify a culprit is felt to be limited. Copson and Holloway (1997) in a survey found that detectives felt that profiling led to the identification of the offender in only 2.7% of cases and ‘helped to solve’ 16% of cases.
Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990) attempted to discover whether professional profilers would be more accurate than detectives, clinical psychologists and students. They asked the participants to examine two closed police cases (a sex offence and a murder) and to draw up profiles. What they found was that the profilers did indeed produce richer and more detailed profiles and in relation to the sex offence, they were more accurate than non-profilers, but the detectives were more accurate on the murder case.
Pinizzotto and Finkel concluded that the success of the profilers was the result of both confidence and experience rather than the use of an exclusive technique. The implications would therefore be that both training and practical experience are vital in developing profiling expertise and that productive liaison between the police and psychologists is the way forward in order to achieve both investigative and clinical objectives.
There are a number of misconceptions about profiling, usually based on its fictional use and psycho-dynamic portraits of politicians. Rarely does profiling provide the specific identity of the offender, and this is not its purpose. The aim is to narrow the field of the investigation and suggest the type of person who committed the crime (Douglas et al, 1986).
The profile report will try to establish the gender, approximate age, marital status, educational level and details of possible occupation of the offender. There may be suggestions of whether this person has a previous police record and if another offence is likely.
Whether profiling is effective or not is a key question, and historically there are famous successes and failures. One of the best-known failures in America was the case of Albert DeSalvo (known as the ‘Boston Strangler’). A profile suggested the offender was a male homosexual schoolteacher living alone. When arrested, DeSalvo was found to be a heterosexual construction worker living with his family. In the UK, the Rachel Nickell case is seen as a failure of offender profiling. ‘Rachel Nickell was a young woman who was brutally murdered in mid-morning while walking on Wimbledon Common in south London. As part of the investigation into the killing, a profile was commissioned from a psychologist. A suspect was eventually identified and it was noted that he seemed to fit the profile well. An elaborate operation, drawing partly but not only on the profile, was put together in which a police woman befriended the socially isolated and inadequate suspect, offering the promise of an intimate relationship in exchange for descriptions of his sexual fantasies and a confession that he murdered the woman on the Common. The confession was not forthcoming, but he was still arrested. The case fell apart.
Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990) argue that profiling is most effective in serial sexual offences because of the extensive research base, and least effective for fraud, burglary, robbery, theft and drug-induced crimes. Holmes (1989) feels that it is most useful when there is a psychopathology involved, such as sadistic assault.
Holmes (1989) cites FBI data, which reveal that in 192 cases of profile generation in 1981, arrests were made in 88, but in only 17% of these did the profile contribute to the arrest. Others ( Oleson, 1996) point out that the seminal work of the FBI in establishing offender profiling may be methodologically flawed since no control groups were used to compare the evidence obtained from interviews with offenders and there is no mention of the statistical techniques used to analyse their data. Moreover, much of the evidence used by the FBI was simply information obtained in interviews with offenders and was accepted at face value.
More recent research has made greater claims for the usefulness of offender profiling (for example, approximately 80% of cases solved were helped by offender profiling according to Canter and Heritage, 1990).
In the UK, a survey of detectives in 48 police forces, who had worked with offender profiling concluded that identification of the offender came in 2.7% of cases and general help in 16% (Copson, 1995). What the survey did find was variety in the individuals who did the profiling. Those involved included clinical psychologists, forensic psychiatrists, academic psychologists, clinical psychiatrists, forensic psychologists and consultant therapists.
The skill of the individual profiler determined whether the police officers were satisfied with profiling generally. ‘Indeed the research suggests that, at this stage of the development of profiling in Britain, approaches to profiling are idiosyncratic’ (Copson, 1995). Britton (1997) also admits that a large number of cases continue to be solved, not by profiling, but by routine police work, or the use of forensic evidence. However we should also be aware that police officers may be reluctant to admit that ‘outsiders’ have helped to solve a crime.
Profiling does at least allow the police to better focus their investigations. This can be important for as Canter (1994) has noted the alternative is that the police will simply throw more and more resources at a crime in the hope that ‘something will turn up’. Nevertheless Jackson et al (1997) conclude that ‘…when profiles are considered as a separate entity, they seldom, if ever, offer enough foundation to guide an investigation in a new direction’. They conclude that any profile should be accompanied by practical advice on how best to proceed with a particular investigation.
We should also be aware of the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy with respect to profiling. Detectives should bear in mind that a profile may well fit a number of people and may not be totally accurate. The fact that a suspect happens to fit the profile does not ‘prove’ that they committed the offence. There may be several people who share the suspect’s make-up and so the police should be cautious before making a presumption of guilt. This issue is most likely to be created because psychologists will tend to work on probabilities whereas police may be more likely to operate in absolute terms of guilt and innocence. The danger is that once a person has been labelled as a suspect and brought in for questioning, the police will make a presumption of guilt and see their role as merely to elicit a confession.
There is little good scientific research to which one can turn in trying to answer the question of how useful profiling is. Success or failure are not so easily measured when one is dealing with the sort of material used in profiling. If a profiler’s information proves to be 50% accurate and 50% inaccurate should this be counted as a success or a failure? In addition if any information provided by a profiler is used that helps in catching a criminal is this success, even if the rest of the information provided was useless? A related issue to this is that profile details may only be considered as useful if it provides a type of detail, which the police could not have reasonably deduced, for themselves.