Criminal Profiling: A Historical Analysis and Contemporary View of the Field

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Criminal profiling is a field with a long and somewhat contentious history. While multiple cases have occurred in which criminal profiling has helped catch offenders, its methodology has been subject to significant criticism. Due to a range of misconceptions about its methodology and applications, combined with sometimes misleading depictions in the media, criminal profiling has been considered a pseudoscience by many. The purpose of this paper is to explore the history and methods of the field of criminal profiling. Discussion will first explore the historical development of the field, as well as its current place in criminal investigations. Criminal profiling techniques will then be explored, followed by a review of common misconceptions about its methodology. Notable criminal profiling cases will be analyzed to determine the efficacy of this approach in locating offenders. This paper will conclude with a summary and outline of key points. 

History of the Field

Criminal profiling is a field that has experienced a great deal of controversy since its early roots. Though the discipline has well-established procedures and methods, it has experienced more than its share of critics. Nevertheless, the field of criminal profiling has helped in the identification and ultimate arrest of countless offenders. This section will provide an overview of the history of criminal profiling. Early cases of criminal profiling will first be highlighted, followed by discussion regarding its entry into more mainstream police work. Applications to the fields of psychology and sociology will then be explored, as well as the establishment of criminal profiling schools and organizations, thus, cementing the field's credibility. 

Early Cases of Criminal Profiling

While there is some evidence of criminal profiling occurring in nearly all aspects of history, the origins of modern criminal profiling can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Devery, 2010). Some researchers cite the case of Jack the Ripper as the first attempt at criminal profiling (Devery, 2010). The now-infamous serial killer, whose true identity was never discovered, was responsible for the death of at least five women in the London area around the year of 1888. Historians believe that Jack the Ripper may have been responsible for more than twice that many murders, which were characterized by the gruesome removal of victim's organs and mutilation of the face and genitals (Devery, 2010). While the name Jack the Ripper has become something of a folk legend, he was a psychotic killer who threatened the lives of London's population at the time (Devery, 2010). 

As London had never witnessed such inhumane and senseless violence, policemen and city officials were somewhat puzzled as to how to investigate Jack the Ripper's crimes (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). There was no apparent motive, and the isolation of the killings left few witnesses who could provide any information about the suspect. Therefore, investigators were forced to rely on alternative methods for potentially locating the suspect and preventing subsequent murders. Failed attempts by the Metropolitan Police and expert detectives from Scotland Yard forced police to eventually abandon the case. Ultimately, the police surgeon at the time, Thomas Bond, was asked to provide his opinions about the nature of the killings in hopes of somehow determining some sort of identifiable pattern (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). 

Due to Bond's expertise on surgical procedures and his knowledge of criminal behavior, he provided what became known as the first profile of an offender (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). According to Bond, all five of the murders in question shared similarities that separated them from other offenses in the area (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Consistencies were found in the manner in which the victims were stabbed, as well as the body parts that were removed, leading Bond to conclude that not only were the murders performed by the same killer, but that the suspect was likely not a skilled butcher or slaughterer, as previously thought (Holmes & Holmes, 2008).  Bond ultimately presented a full offender profile of the suspect that led to the development of a new sub-discipline of police detective work. Bond's assessment was the first attempt to consider the psychology and behavioral nature of the suspect and, while Jack the Ripper was never found, a new field was born (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). 

An influx of criminal behavior in the increasingly populated New York City in the early 20th century resulted in a rapid growth of criminal profiling, and police soon found themselves relying on criminal profilers to help them solve numerous open cases within the city's limits (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). The location and conviction of the murder J. Frank Hickey in 1912 and "Mad Bomber" bomber in the early 1960s lent credibility to the field of criminal profiling, and psychiatrists and psychologists who specialized in trait theories and profiling criminals quickly became a valuable asset to police, the FBI, and the CIA (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). 

Use in Conjunction with Psychology and Sociology 

James Brussell, the psychiatrist who eventually located the Mad Bomber, was largely responsible for the modern framework used by criminal profilers today (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Brussell's methodology and procedural steps for eventually locating this unknown criminal paved the way for a more objective, and scientifically based method of gathering information about suspects. Due to Brussell's psychiatric background, the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and sociology began to play a larger part in the practice of criminal profiling (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Psychology, in particular, had an early influence on the field, as these professionals' ability to infer personality and behavioral characteristics based on the manner in which crimes were committed were seen as invaluable insight for detectives (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Criminal profilers were able to provide detailed depictions of suspects' age, race, employment background, marital status, and personality based on evidence located at the scene of the crime (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Additionally, criminal profilers used the filed of psychology to understand how the crimes were organized, such as the positions of bodies at the scene of the crime, implied core personality variables on the part of the suspect (Holmes & Holmes, 2008).

Sociology also played a key role in the advancement of criminal profiling in the mid-20th century (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Early criminal profilers began to draw on information such as socioeconomic status, race, and social roles in their attempt to locate suspects (Turvey, 2012). According to these criminal profilers, violent offenders share many social commonalities that can lead to their eventual identification, such as social isolation and low socioeconomic background (Turvey, 2012). The combination of psychology, sociology, and psychiatry has all contributed to modern approaches to criminal profiling and the FBI currently draws heavily on skilled behavioral scientists to forensically analyze open criminal cases (Turvey, 2012). 

Establishment of Schools and Professional Organizations

While criminal profiling began as a supplemental attempt to aid detectives in locating unidentified offenders, the field is now established and complete with numerous academic programs and professional organizations (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). The involvement with the FBI, primarily due to a keen interest in criminal profiling by J. Edgar Hoover, resulted in the establishment of the FBI academy's Behavioral Science Unit in the early 1970s (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). The unit was the first international center primarily dedicated to exploring criminal profiling techniques, and its success in catching killers in rural places such as Montana helped build momentum for the field (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). 

The Academy of Behavioral Profiling, now known as the International Association of Forensic Criminologists, became the first professional organization within the field, which provided guidelines for conducting criminal profiling work (Turvey, 2012). The establishment of this organization resulted in the development of the Journal of Behavioral Profiling, the field's first scholarly publication centered on profiling techniques and methods (Turvey, 2012). Additionally, academic programs aimed at certifying future professionals to conduct criminal profiling work, began to appear in the 1970s, and most criminal justice programs now provide education in this sub-discipline (Turvey, 2012). 

Criminal Profiling Techniques

Despite some popular opinion, criminal profiling techniques are specific and evidence-based. Following the establishment of schools and academic programs specifically catered toward criminal profiling education, the field began to gain considerably more scientific credibility in the late 20th century. The influx of scrupulous research evaluating its aims, approaches, and procedures has yielded new insight into how to identify and catch criminal offenders with our without existing criminal records. This section will outline criminal profiling techniques in more detail. Aims of criminal profiling will first be considered, followed by discussion on the varying approaches criminal profilers use to perform their work. Finally, agreed upon procedural steps will be explained. 

Three Primary Aims

According to Holmes and Holmes (2008), there are three fundamental aims that guide the criminal profiling process. Drawn from extensive case study research and the expertise of psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminal investigators, these aims constitute the most widely agreed upon criminal profiling framework in the field (Turvey, 2012). Additionally, these aims differ from those of police detectives in that they specifically emphasize the limitations and capabilities associated with the criminal profiling profession.

The first aim of criminal profiling, according to Holmes and Holmes (2008), is to provide an accurate and objective depiction of the offender for law enforcement officials. Rather than attempting to locate the offenders themselves, it must be recognized that criminal profilers most effectively work in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and seek to capitalize on each other’s skills and resources (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Second, criminal profilers should seek to conduct a full psychological assessment of any evidence related to the crime (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Beyond just profiling the offender, an assessment of any objects left behind at the crime scene can provide valuable information to law enforcement agents. Third, Holmes and Holmes (2008) assert that criminal profilers should provide information and strategic advice about how to interview potential suspects. Due to their extensive psychological background, criminal profilers are skilled at understanding personality and behavioral traits that can be used to gather information about a crime (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Any insight profilers have that can assist in this interviewing process should be passed on to investigators responsible for the case (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). 

Four Primary Frameworks 

In addition to these aims, Turvey (2012) maintains that there are four primary approaches for engaging in the practice of criminal profiling. According to Turvey (2012), the investigative approach represents the most common framework from which to conduct profiling work. This approach involves the application of psychological principles and assessment methods in determining suspect characteristics (Turvey, 2012). This was the approach used in the original Jack the Ripper case and is the approach most commonly viewed in the media. Additionally, the clinical approach to criminal profiling consists of exploring psychiatric principles related to the crime and suspect (Turvey, 2012). As many violent crimes are committed by individuals with psychiatric disorders, understanding the application of psychiatry to criminal profiling can greatly assist in the identification of a suspect (Holmes & Holmes, 2008).  Third, the geographical approach to criminal profiling is one in which professionals seek to identify commonalities and trends related to the crime scenes in which the activities were committed (Turvey, 2012). In the case of serial offenses, several trends can be identified related to the location, time, and setting of crimes and this information can be used to separate some suspects from others (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Finally, the typological approach to criminal profiling seeks to identify these aforementioned crime scene characteristics to present a typology of the suspect (Turvey, 2012). 

Five Methodological Steps 

Finally, there are five widely agreed upon steps for developing an offender profile (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). According to Holmes and Holmes (2008), the first step in engaging in the profiling process involves a gathering a detailed assessment of the crime. This assessment can be used to compare specific activities associated with the criminal behavior with those committed previously (Sammons, 2013). This first step also helps pave the way for more detailed analysis later on in the investigative process. Second, the criminal profiler performs a detailed assessment of the crime scene (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Combined with the initial typological assessment, the crime scene can yield a plethora of information regarding the criminal's personality and behavioral patterns (Sammons, 2013). Third, the criminal profiler performs an in-depth analysis of the victim (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Many offenders target similar victims in their crimes, and information about the victim's sex, race, career, and family background can provide insight into the suspect's identity (Sammons, 2013). Assessing the victim's background can also help establish possible motives for the crime. The fourth step of criminal profiling is to seek to establish this motive (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Based on information gathered from the previous three steps, criminal profilers can work in conjunction with law enforcement to discover possible reasons for the crime, as well as connections with other similar cases. Finally, criminal profilers work to present a detailed description of the offender based on all the information gathered from the previous steps (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). This description combines information gathered from the profiler and law enforcement officials and should contain as much objective data as possible (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). The description is presented to the public to help gain an identity for the suspect. 

Misconceptions Regarding Criminal Profiling

While the field of criminal profiling has improved its credibility, accuracy, and effectiveness since its early roots, the discipline still lends itself to substantial debate. Much of this debate, however, stems from misconceptions about the field stemming from glamorized media portrayals. The actual techniques used by criminal profilers differ greatly from those seen on popular television shows and movies. This section will outline many of the common misconceptions about criminal profiling. Specifically, differences between real criminal profiling and those seen in the media will first be presented. Differences between criminal profiling and prospective profiling will then be described. Finally, key differences between criminal profiling and simple intuition, or insight, will be highlighted. 

Depictions in the Media

Perhaps no other show has been more influential in drawing attention to the field of criminal profiling as CSI. Now with multiple spin-offs, and reruns showing nearly 24 hours a day in different regions of the world, most people have gained some insight into the work of criminal profiles based on this television program. In the show, the viewer witnessed fast-paced criminal investigative work, the suspect is always caught, and the show usually ends with a detailed confession of the crime. 

However, while CSI has largely been responsible for the increased attention brought to criminal profiling, it has also resulted in the propagation of numerous myths surrounding the field. One of the most common myths related to criminal profiling is that of its accuracy (Turvey, 2012). While there is a paucity of data specifically analyzing the efficacy of criminal profiling and its methodology, it is likely much less accurate than the public assumes (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Unlike a 60-minute CSI, criminal profiling work usually takes place of months, and more likely years (Turvey, 2012). It is not uncommon for criminal profilers to spend decades gathering information needed to properly identify a suspect. The case of the Mad Bomber described above lasted approximately 20 years (Turvey, 2012). Additionally, criminal profiles largely acknowledge the low accuracy associated with their field, as well as the difficulty in gathering information. If criminal cases were simple, law enforcement officials would not need to rely on advanced psychological assessments. Instead, criminal profiling is a relatively inaccurate field, and its efficacy is best viewed longitudinally, rather than over the span of just one or two cases (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009).

Differences between Criminal Profiling and Prospective Profiling

Additional myth regarding criminal profiling is that its aims and approaches are often confused with other related fields, such as prospective profiling (Sammons, 2013). Prospective profiling is a technique that is very similar to criminal profiling, but differs in several key ways. First, prospective profiling involves creating a profile of a potential suspect based on existing files and information gathered in previous cases (Sammons, 2013). Similar to other forms of demographic profiling, prospective profiling relies on stereotypes to develop an assessment of the suspect (Winerman, 2004). According to criminal profilers, relying on such information can be misleading and unreliable (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Conversely, criminal profilers seek to gather information specific to the crime(s) committed in order to develop an independent profile of the suspect (Turvey, 2012). For example, two individuals committing similar crimes and sharing similar races would not be given the same offender profile. Instead, a unique profile is created for each supposed offender based on specific information related to the case (Winerman, 2004). 

Differences between Criminal Profiling and Insight or Intuition

Additionally, criminal profiling is often confused with the use of "psychics" and other supposed clairvoyants who rely solely on their personal intuition to locate suspects (Winerman, 2004). Although there is some evidence that the utilization of these reportedly clairvoyant individuals can be helpful, the inconsistency and high degree of error associated with these cases represents a far different approach to criminal investigation than criminal profiling (Devery, 2010). Criminal profiling extends far beyond just insight or intuition by gathering as much objective information about the case as possible (Devery, 2010). Criminal profiling does not simply involve drawing somewhat arbitrary conclusions about potential suspects based on one's own instincts. Instead, the skilled criminal profiler develops a profile based on the detailed facts gathered through the five procedural steps of this discipline (Turvey, 2012). It is important to note the criminal profilers acknowledge their role as somewhat of a last resort for law enforcement agencies (Turvey, 2012). Criminal profiling is simply one tool that can be used to locate a suspect, but it does not claim to take precedence over traditional law enforcement techniques (Sammons, 2013). 

Notable Criminal Profiling Cases

While the efficacy of criminal profiling is best viewed over the span of several decades, this discipline has resulted in the successful identification of numerous offenders. Though skeptics still remain, the overwhelming evidence supporting the methods and effectiveness of criminal profiling can be observed through several notable case studies. This section will describe several of the more famous examples of successful criminal profiling cases. Historical examples will first be explored, followed by more contemporary examples.

Historical Examples

In addition to the successful cases of the New York City murder and Mad Bomber described above, several other successful criminal profiling cases have occurred that lend credibility to the field. Perhaps the most widely cited criminal profiling case, besides Jack the Ripper, is the one performed by Walter Langer on Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). During this time, Langer, a psychologist who relied primarily on Freudian psychoanalytic methods, was asked by local law enforcement agencies to develop a criminal profile of Hitler to gather possible information about events related to World War II (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). In a detailed analysis of Hitler's behaviors, actions, speeches, book, and any other information he could gather about the infamous dictator, Langer developed a profile that outlined Hitler's manic personality and psycho-developmental complexes that may have resulted in his treacherous acts (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Based on the information gathered from this profile, Langer proposed that Hitler would likely commit suicide in the event that his power was overturned (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). When this prediction came into fruition, Langer was lauded, and the field of criminal profiling gained substantial recognition in the United States. 

The former-police-officer-turned-profilers Howard Teten, Richard Walter, and Bob Keppel also played tremendous roles in building credibility for criminal profiling in the mid-20th century. Teten successfully located the individual responsible for the abduction of a young girl in Montana, while Keppel and Walter combined forces to assist in the location of serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway (Devery, 2010). Using techniques based on the development of serial killer sub-types and the analysis of mental disorders, these three former police detectives were among the first to establish systematic procedures for engaging in the criminal profiling process (Devery, 2010). More recently, the psychologist David Canter used an equation developed from previous criminal cases to successfully locate an unidentified serial rapist and killer in the London area in the mid 1980s. (Turvey, 2012). 

Contemporary Research 

Jackson, Wilson, and Rana (2011) performed one of the more in-depth critical reviews of the criminal profiling process and its efficacy as a field. In response to some reports suggesting that criminal profiling boasted a success rate as high as 80%, these authors sought to critically examine the evidence supporting these claims. While no meta-analyses or extensive objective assessments of criminal profiling cases has been published to date, Jackson, Wilson, and Rana's (2011) review is one of the more detailed explorations into the actual success rates of this field. Based on interviews with current criminal profilers John Douglas, these researchers explored the merit of the techniques used by contemporary professionals in the field. According to these authors, criminal profiling likely does not possess the high success rates claimed by previous advocates, but still plays a critical role in the successful investigation of potential criminal suspects (Jackson, Wilson & Rana, 2011). While these authors suggest that more extensive analysis of the efficacy of this field is needed, anecdotal evidence from contemporary criminal profilers and law enforcement agents suggests that this discipline is viewed as a valuable tool within law enforcement - particularly in the case of serial killers (Jackson, Wilson & Rana, 2011). 

White, Lester, Gentile and Rosenbleeth (2011) also performed a recent review of the efficacy of criminal profiling as a law enforcement tool. Once again, no empirical data was collected, although these researchers critical reviewed both historical and contemporary examples to build strong case for the efficacy of this field. In a review of 200 serial killers, White and colleagues (2011) specifically sought to explore variables that were particularly effective in assisting police in identifying suspects. From this analysis, White and colleagues (2011) established 12 unique categorical variables that ultimately contribute to the identification of suspects. Interestingly, the most important variable for successfully locating a suspect was shown to be citizen awareness, and the delivery of case-related information to the public (White et al., 2011). More often than not, citizens who knew the victim, the suspect, or any family members related to the case were responsible for successfully locating the individual in question (White et al., 2011). However, the information gathered by law enforcement agents and criminal profilers played a critical role in priming the information gained from these citizens and family members (White et al., 2011). Furthermore, White and colleagues (2011) note that this information was highly efficacious for locating suspects, but not necessarily identifying the actual perpetrator of the crimes. 

One final point to consider in the case of criminal profiling is its role in more modern technological advances in criminal science, such as the use of DNA evidence to develop offender profiles. While the effect of these advances on criminal profiling has been relatively unexplored, Gershaw, Schweighardt, Rourke and Wallace (2011) evaluated their role in conjunction with forensic psychology. According to these researchers, the use of DNA and other modern approaches to forensic science used in crime labs has the potential to transform the field of criminal profiling in a more positive fashion (Gershaw et al., 2011). Such evidence yields even more objective information from which criminal profilers can establish a thorough assessment of the crime scene and characteristics of the suspect (Gershaw et al., 2011). As DNA-based forensic science develops, criminal profiling may achieve higher success rates than in previous generations (Gershaw et al., 2011). Future research is needed to systematically explore the role of this science in criminal profiling, as well as legislative issues surrounding confidentiality and permissibility to access genetic information form available databases (Gershaw et al., 2011). 


The purpose of this paper was to provide a historical analysis of the field of criminal profiling, as well as a contemporary view of the field. A history of the field was first outlined, drawing on notable cases that helped establish criminal profiling as an independent law enforcement tool. The use of criminal profiling in conjunction with more established disciplines such as psychology and sociology was considered, as well as the eventual development of schools and professional organizations designed to promote guidelines and research regarding criminal profiling techniques. The establishment of these schools led to the adoption of widely agreed upon frameworks for engaging in criminal profiling work. The primary aims, approaches, and procedural steps used by current criminal profilers were discussed, as well as their potential efficacy in various types of crimes. Common misconceptions were then reviewed, such as inaccurate depictions in the media, and misinformation about the accuracy and practicality of criminal profiling work. Differences between the media and criminal profiling, as well as similar related fields were then considered. Finally, contemporary research and cases studies were presented. 

Based on the evidence presented in this paper, it is evident that criminal profiling is a field that is still surrounded by many misconceptions and a high degree of ambiguity. Although the field has gained credibility with the development of academic programs and professional organizations, criminal profile still lends itself to considerable debate. The lack of published research regarding the efficacy of this field, as well as the merit of the techniques and procedures used by these professionals, has largely been responsible for many of the misinformation and inaccurate depictions shared by the public. Future research is needed to systematically determine the efficacy of criminal profiling's methodology, as well as to generate future theory-based principles for locating suspects. Finally, the development of DNA-based forensic psychology and its impact on criminal profiling has been relatively unexplored. Future research is needed to explore the possible link between these two disciplines. 


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