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Offender Profiling

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Offender Profiling

When police do not have much evidence to catch a criminal, they sometimes appoint the help of a forensic psychologist. The forensic psychologist then builds an offender profile with statements from the victims and witnesses, and evidence gathered from the crime scene.

Offender profiling is an investigative tool that helps with the identification, arrest, and conviction of an unknown offender.

The offender profile describes the likely social (e.g. employment, marital status) and mental characteristics (e.g. level of education, motivation) of the offender. It also predicts who, where, and when the offender is likely to attack next. Finally, it gives possible interview strategies to obtain information about other crimes committed by the offender and to get them to confess their guilt.

Let us now look at the history of offender profiling and types of offender profiling.

The history of offender profiling

Offender profiling can be traced back to the 1880s, to the case of Jack the Ripper, an unidentified serial killer active from 1888–91 in the impoverished areas around Whitechapel, London. His victims were female prostitutes in the slums of East End, London. In 1888, two physicians, George Phillips and Thomas Bond, used autopsy results and crime scene evidence to make predictions about Jack the Ripper’s personality, behavioural characteristics, and lifestyle.

Dr Bond stated that Jack the Ripper had no medical training or knowledge of anatomy. He noted that the gaping wounds inflicted by the Ripper were not consistent with the training of a medical expert or:

even the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer.’ In his opinion, the murderer must have been ‘a man of solitary habits, subject to periodic attacks of homicidal and erotic mania, and the character of the mutilations possibly indicating satyriasis.’

Offender Profiling Jack the Ripper illustration StudySmarterLondon magazine illustration of a man suspected to be Jack the Ripper

Offender profiling was used to catch ‘mad bomber’ George Metesky who eluded New York City police for 16 years. Metesky planted more than 30 small bombs around New York City between 1940–56, targeting cinemas and other public areas.

In 1956, the exasperated investigators asked psychiatrist James Brussel to study crime scene photos and notes from the bomber. He formed a profile of the suspect: unmarried, foreign, high school graduate, in his 50s, living in Connecticut, paranoid, and with a vendetta against energy company Con Edison (the first bomb had targeted the company’s headquarters). Some of Brussel’s predictions were common sense and some were psychologically based. For example, he said that since paranoia tends to peak around age 35, the bomber, now 16 years after the first bomb, would be in his 50s.

Brussel’s profile led to the arrest of George Metesky.

Brussel also predicted that when the police arrested Metesky he would be wearing a buttoned, double-breasted suit. When Metesky answered the door to the police he was wearing pyjamas. However, after his arrest, he changed into a double-breasted suit, buttoned.

Following the ‘mad bomber’ case, offender profiling gained considerable interest from investigative professionals and the public. In 1972, the FBI formed the behavioural science unit.

Types of offender profiling

Since it was first successfully used in the 1950s, there have been developments in offender profiling. There are two main types of approach.

The top-down approach

The top-down approach is used by the FBI, thus known as the American approach. Investigators can identify characteristics and categorise the offender with data gathered from the crime scene. It is called the top-down approach because it tries to fit crime details into predetermined categories.

The FBI's behavioural science unit pioneered the approach. They interviewed 36 sexually motivated killers, including Ted Bundy. They questioned them on topics such as early warning signs and possible triggers. From this, they identified typologies (classification based on types or categories.)

Ressler (1986) developed the organised and disorganised classification definitions, by interviewing offenders such as the infamous Ted Bundy, mentioned above. 24 were classified as organised, and 12 disorganised, suggesting distinct types.

Offender profiling Ted Bundy wanted profile StudySmarterTed Bundy information poster, FBI

Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) theorised that for homicides, offenders mainly fall into two categories: organised and disorganised. These are shown in the table below.

Characteristics of the murder

Likely characteristics of the offender

Organised

  • Crime is planned

  • Shows self-control at the crime scene

  • Leaves few clues

  • The victim is a targeted stranger

  • Attempts to control the victim

  • Above-average IQ

  • Socially and sexually competent

  • Married/cohabiting

  • Geographically mobile (crimes are spread out)

  • Experiencing anger/depression at time of offence (went through some kind of critical life event)

  • Follows media coverage of crime, may even correspond with news media

  • Skilled occupation

Disorganised

  • Little planning/preparation

  • Little attempt to hide the evidence at the crime scene (e.g. fingerprints, blood)

  • Minimum use of constraint

  • Random, disorganised behaviour

  • Low IQ

  • Socially and sexually inadequate

  • Lives alone, near to crime scene

  • Physically/sexually abused in childhood

  • Frightened or confused at time of offence

  • Unskilled occupation or unemployed

For organised offenders, there are typically three different crime scenes: where the victim was approached by the killer, where the victim was killed, and where the victim’s body was disposed of. They are notoriously difficult to catch due to the lengths they go to cover their crimes and the fact that they often are familiar with police investigation techniques.

This categorisation creates a false dichotomy between the aspect of the offender being organised or disorganised. Essentially, it implies the offender is either one or the other as these are the only two categories that exist, when this may not be the case. Rather, it may be more appropriate to apply a scale, as suggested by Turvey (2009).

Canter et al. (2004) argued for the nomothetic approach (generalisations apply to the many) to investigative profiling. They argued that profiling and investigative inferences about offenders should be done and supported by both a collection of scientific evidence and an analysis of that behaviour. This can then be used to establish patterns and inferences about the offender. This way, profiling relies on the process rather than the individual profiler.

The steps of the top-down approach

The top-down approach usually follows these steps:

  1. Review the evidence gathered from the crime scene and other material evidence.

  2. Classify the crime scene as organised or disorganised.

  3. Reconstruct the crime scene based on a hypothesis of what happened.

  4. These elements are compared and an offender profile is generated.

Evaluation of the top-down approach

These are some of the criticisms that have been done to the top-down approach.

  • Reductionist: the top-down approach has been criticised as being reductionist due to the classification system (organised/disorganised) being too simple. An offender may have features of both organised and disorganised types. For example, an offender may be disorganised at the start but then increasingly become more organised as they evolve their method of operating.Holmes and Holmes (1998) suggested there were four types of serial killer: visionary (believes someone or an entity is commanding them to kill, and are likely suffering from psychosis), mission (in order to rid society of a certain group of people), hedonistic (for their own personal pleasure), and power/control (fantasises about having power, seeks to control victims.)

  • Motivation: the top-down approach can only be applied to sexually motivated killers, as this was the sample that the FBI interviewed to create the typologies.

  • Stable characteristics: the top-down approach assumes that criminal behaviour will reflect the characteristics of the offender and remain stable over time. However, criminals may change aspects such as their method of operating as they become more knowledgeable on police investigation techniques.

  • External influences: the top-down approach assumes that the offender’s behaviour is constructed from stable personality traits. However, Alison et al. (2002) argue that the offender’s behaviour can also be influenced by external factors, so it is not stable and predictable.

  • Organised vs. Disorganised: the categories of ‘organised’ and ‘disorganised’ have been challenged by Canter (2004). He analysed the data of 100 murders and found there was support for the ‘organised’ category but no support for the ‘disorganised’ one.

  • Subjective: the top-down approach can be subjective as the profiler is relying on their intuition and speculation when assessing the crime scene.

The bottom-up approach

Pioneered by David Canter and Paul Britton, the bottom-up approach is the British investigative process. Canter is the UK’s leading profiling expert. The bottom-up approach aims to generate an offender’s profile by looking at the evidence. There are no ‘typologies’, the profile is data-driven and emerges as more and more details of the offence are known. It makes use of ‘smallest space analysis’, a computer programme that identifies correlations across patterns of behaviour.

Investigative psychology

The bottom-up approach Canter pioneered is called investigative psychology. When analysing crime scene evidence, investigators use statistical procedures and psychological theory. This creates a pattern of behaviours that is likely to occur in crimes, all of which are added to a database. They can then match specific details of an offence to this database

to generate likely details about the offender.

There are five key assumptions to investigative psychology:

  • Interpersonal coherence: how an offender behaves during a crime, and how they act towards the victims is reflective of how they behave normally. For example, an offender who leaves a neat and tidy crime scene is neat and tidy in everyday life.

  • Time and place: the time and place of a crime may give information about an offender’s residence/base or where they work.

  • Criminal characteristics: characteristics about the offender can help to classify them.

  • Criminal career: this refers to how far is the offender in his criminal career, and how their criminal activity might develop.

  • Forensic awareness: offenders who show comprehension of forensic investigation have probably committed a crime before and have had a previous encounter with the criminal justice system.

Geographic profiling

Rossmo (1997) proposed a bottom-up approach called geographic profiling. The premise is that offenders will limit their crimes to geographical areas they are familiar with. This method involves looking at the location of crimes that seem to have been committed by the same offender (known as ‘crime mapping’). Hypotheses can then be generated about the offenders ‘centre of gravity’: what they are thinking, how they like to operate, where they live or base themselves, and also where they are likely to strike next (‘jeopardy surface’).

Canter’s ‘circle theory’ proposed two models:

  • The marauder: operates nearby their home or base.

  • The commuter: travels a distance away from their residence.

Offenders usually operate in a circle around their home or chosen place of offence.

Evaluation of the bottom-up approach

Although the bottom-up approach can be seen as more applicable and accurate than the top-down approach, it still has some shortfalls. Let's explore its advantages and disadvantages.

  • Scientific: the bottom-up approach can be seen as more scientific than the top-down approach, as it only uses the available crime scene evidence with statistical analysis to create an offender’s profile. This is in contrast to the top-down approach which attempts to fit criminals into typologies and is based more on intuition than psychological theory and analysis.

  • Behavioural patterns: Canter and Heritage (1990) analysed 66 sexual assault cases. They found common behavioural characteristics of offenders such as impersonal use of language and lack of reaction to the victim. Different patterns of behaviours were found for different offenders. This information can be used to predict how an offender’s pattern of behaviour may change, or if crimes were committed by the same offender. This supports the usefulness of statistical analysis in investigative psychology.

  • Geographical preferences: Lundrigan and Canter (2001) analysed information from 120 murder cases involving serial killers in America. They found that the killers disposed of bodies in locations that created a ‘centre of gravity.’ Their residence or base was always located in the centre of this circle. Also, this effect was more noticeable for the marauder model. This supports the use of geographical profiling as spatial information is a vital factor in discovering the base of an offender.

  • Applicable to multiple crimes: the bottom-up approach can be used in a wider range of crimes than the top-down approach. As well as crimes of sexually motivated killers, the bottom-up approach can be used for offences such as burglary. Thus, it could be said the bottom-up approach is a stronger method of offender profiling.

  • Not completely accurate: despite its advantages, the bottom-up approach has led to some significant failures in catching offenders, such as the Rachel Nickell case, when an innocent man was arrested because he fit the profile. Copson (1995) surveyed 48 police forces and found 83% found offender profiling to be useful, but actually, in only 3% of cases did it lead to accurate identification of the offender.

Offender Profiling - Key takeaways

  • Offender profiling is an investigative tool that helps with the identification, apprehension, and conviction of an unknown offender.

  • An offender profile describes the likely social and mental characteristics of the offender. It also predicts who, where, and when the offender is likely to attack next, and possible interview strategies to obtain information about crimes committed and confession of guilt.

  • Offender profiling was first used in the case of Jack the Ripper in 1888. It gained prominence in 1956 after it was successfully used in the arrest of ‘mad bomber’ George Metesky. In 1972, the FBI created the behavioural science unit.

  • There are two approaches to offender profiling: the top-down approach, and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is the approach used by the FBI, thus called the American approach. It is called the top-down approach because it tries to fit crime details into predetermined categories or typologies.

  • The bottom-up is the British approach. It aims to generate an offender’s profile by looking at the evidence. There are no ‘typologies’, the profile is data-driven and emerges as more and more details of the offence are known. It makes use of ‘smallest space analysis’, a computer programme that identifies correlations across patterns of behaviour. There are two methods to the bottom-up approach, investigative psychology, and geographical profiling.

Frequently Asked Questions about Offender Profiling

Offender profiling is an investigative tool that helps with the identification, apprehension, and conviction of an unknown offender.

Investigative psychology is a bottom-up approach pioneered by David Canter, the UK’s leading profiling expert. Statistical procedures and psychological theory are applied in the analysis of crime scene evidence. This creates a pattern of behaviours that is likely to occur in crimes, all of which are added to a database. Specific details of an offence can then be matched to this database to generate likely details about the offender.

Offender profiling is part of forensic psychology.

This method is known as the top-down approach. The main limitations of this approach are it is reductionist because the classification system of organised and disorganised is too simple. Also, this approach can only be applied to sexually motivated killers, as this was the sample that the FBI interviewed to create typologies.

Final Offender Profiling Quiz

Question

What information does an offender profile provide?

Show answer

Answer

  • The likely social (e.g. employment, marital status) and mental characteristics (e.g. level of education, motivation) of the offender. 

  • Predicts who, where and when the offender is likely to attack next.

  • Possible interview strategies to obtain information about crimes committed and confession of guilt.

Show question

Question

When was offender profiling first used?

Show answer

Answer

1888 in the case of Jack the Ripper.

Show question

Question

What case led to considerable interest in offender profiling?


Show answer

Answer

The case of ‘mad bomber’ George Metesky who eluded New York City police for 16 years from 1940-1956.

Show question

Question

Why is the top-down approach named so?

Show answer

Answer

It tries to fit crime details into predetermined categories.

Show question

Question

What are the two categories of the top-down approach?


Show answer

Answer

Organised and disorganised behaviour

Show question

Question

Holmes and Holmes (1998) suggested what four types of serial killer?


Show answer

Answer

  • Visionary (believes someone or an entity is commanding him to kill, likely suffering from psychosis)

  • Mission (in order to rid society of a certain group of people)

  • Hedonistic (for own personal pleasure) 

  • Power/control (fantasizes about having power, seeks to control victims)

Show question

Question

The top-down approach assumes that the offender’s behaviour is constructed from stable personality traits. However, what do Alison et al. (2002) argue?

Show answer

Answer

An offender’s behaviour can also be influenced by external factors so it's not stable and predictable.

Show question

Question

How did Canter's (2004) findings challenge the categories of ‘organised’ and ‘disorganised’?


Show answer

Answer

He analysed the data of 100 murders and found there was support for the ‘organised’ category but no support for ‘disorganised’.

Show question

Question

How does the bottom-up approach differ from the top-down approach?


Show answer

Answer

The bottom-up approach aims to generate an offender’s profile by looking at the evidence. There are no ‘typologies’, the profile is data-driven and emerges as more and more details of the offence are known.

Show question

Question

What are the two methods of the bottom-up approach?


Show answer

Answer

Investigative psychology and geographical profiling.

Show question

Question

What is ‘crime mapping’?


Show answer

Answer

Looking at the location of crimes that seem to have been committed by the same offender.

Show question

Question

What is ‘centre of gravity’?


Show answer

Answer

What an offender is thinking, how they like to operate, where they live or base themselves.

Show question

Question

What is ‘jeopardy surface’?


Show answer

Answer

Where an offender is likely to strike next.

Show question

Question

How do Canter and Heritage's (1990) findings support the usefulness of statistical analysis in investigative psychology?


Show answer

Answer

Canter and Heritage (1990) analysed 66 sexual assault cases. They found common behavioural characteristics of offenders such as impersonal use of language and lack of reaction to the victim, different patterns of behaviours were found for different offenders. This information can be used to predict how an offender’s pattern of behaviour may change, or if crimes were committed by the same offender.

Show question

Question

How do Lundrigan and Canter's (2001) findings support the use of geographical profiling?


Show answer

Answer

Lundrigan and Canter (2001) analysed information from 120 murder cases involving serial killers in America. They found that the killers disposed of bodies in locations that created a ‘centre of gravity’. Their residence or base was always located in the centre of this circle. This effect was more noticeable for the marauder model.

Show question

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