Criminal Profiling as an Aid for Apprehending Serial Killers
Popular media loves to emphasize the role of the criminal profiler in apprehending serial killers. It has been a central them in books, television shows, and movies for the past two decades, and the concept of the feisty criminal profiler interviewing wily and brilliant convicted serial killers in an effort to gain insight into active serial killers has become so iconic that while it was once cutting edge, it is almost cliche at this point in time. However, many people would suggest that this image is a highly romanticized one and that serial killers are not generally captured through criminal profiling, but through more traditional forms of crime scene investigation and routine police procedure. In fact, some of these critics of profiling would actually suggest that the process can be harmful because of the possible misidentification of suspects.
This paper seeks to investigate the actual role that criminal profiling plays in the apprehension of serial killers. Does criminal profiling lead to a meaningful reduction in the list of potential suspects and therefore help investigators find the perpetrators of serial murder, or does profiling allow investigators to make educated guesses about the identity of serial perpetrators, which, without the input derived from standard police procedure would be essentially useless? The literature certainly suggests that criminal profiling for serial killers can aid in the apprehension of a suspect and help eliminate people in the subject pool, but criminal profiling, on its own, cannot identify a suspect. Instead, the optimum combination is criminal profiling and standard police procedure, which can identify a group of suspects, which, combined with the profile, can narrow down a list of people for observation and further investigation. When used as a tool in a criminal investigation, rather than a sole means of criminal investigation, criminal profiling does have a place in the modern investigation of serial criminals, particularly killers.
Defining criminal profiling
In order to understand whether criminal profiling is a valid investigative technique, it is critical to understand what criminal profiling is and what it is not. Criminal profiling is not the identification of a single suspect from a crime scene. Instead, a criminal profile refers to the creation of a psychological, behavioral, and demographic description of the type of person likely to have committed a certain crime. Theoretically, criminal profiling could be used to help identify suspects in a wide variety of crimes, but it is generally used for serial offenders who commit violent crimes. There are two practical reasons for this; isolated offenses generally do not present the danger to public safety that would justify the resources required for criminal profiling and serial offenders commit multiple crimes, leading to multiple crime scenes, which assists in the identification of the factors necessary for developing a profile. "Criminal profiling is the process of using available information about a crime and crime scene to compose a psychological portrait of the unknown perpetrator of the crime" (Muller, 2000). A criminal profiler uses all available information to help determine information about the perpetrator. "The information that the criminal profiler uses is often taken from the scene of the crime, and takes into account factors such as the state of the crime scene, what weapons (if any) were used in the crime, and what was done and said to the victim. Other information used in criminal profiling can include the geographic pattern of the crimes, how the offender got to and from the crime scene, and where the offender lives" (Muller, 2000). Combining all of these various factors allows profilers to help narrow down the potential suspects.
History of Profiling
Criminal profiling is a relatively new crime investigation technique. The first documented case of criminal profiling occurred in the 1950s. A bomber had targeted Manhattan with a more than 3 dozen explosions, and the perpetrator had sent a barrage of angry letters to area newspapers, politicians, and Consolidated Edison, a local utility company. " In 1956, psychiatrist James A. Brussel-also a skilled handwriting analyst-was asked for an analysis to help catch the perpetrator" (Ramsland, 2012). The investigators involved gave Brussel access to all of the information that they had on the crime. Brussel developed a detailed profile of the perpetrator. He believed that the perpetrator would be a former ConEd employee with a grudge, male, European, Roman Catholic immigrant in his 40s or 50s, living with an older female, living in an ethnic community close to the city (Ramsland, 2012). Brussel also predicted that the perpetrator would be quiet, polite, and helpful, but with anger management problems, and that he would also be miserly. Brussel famously predicted that the perpetrator would be wearing a double-breasted suit when he was apprehended. Though Brussel was actually in pajamas when he was apprehended, he did change into a double-breasted suit (Ramsland, 2012). Brussel's profile was accurate in many ways, but it also contained inaccuracies. What made it useful in apprehending the perpetrator was that Brussel suggested the investigators use the profile and publish it to help flush out the suspect (Ramsland, 2012).
While Brussel may have created the first known serial offender profiler, the man who is considered the father of criminal profiling is John Douglas. Douglas was the head of the FBI's Investigative Support Unit for a quarter of a century and developed the modern approach to criminal profiling. Douglas developed his profiling technique by interviewing and studying dozens of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Sirhan, Richard Speck, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, and James Earl Ray, then used what he learned from those interviews to develop criminal profiles (Douglas, 2008). The resulting information helped him develop profiles of the Unabomber, as well as several famous serial killers including: "the Trailside Killer in San Francisco, the Atlanta child murder, the Tylenol poisoner, the man who hunted prostitutes for sport in the woods of Alaska, and Seattle's Green River killer" (Douglas, 2008).
Douglas has taught criminal profiling at the FBI and to members of other law enforcement agencies and may be considered the most respected criminal profiler in the world. Douglas taught criminal profilers to focus on certain element of the crime scene in order to help determine identifying information about the perpetrator of the crimes. He talked about the significance of a killer's signature, which is something the killer does to satisfy an inner need. He also talks about the modus operandi of the killer, which is how the killer accomplishes the crime. Douglas is also known for discussing organized vs. disorganized killers. Organized crime scenes are characterized by hidden bodies, no weapon at the scene, apparently well-planned, a specifically targeted victim, aggression before the killing, and the possible use of restraints (Douglas, 2008). Organized crime scenes suggest that offenders have average or above-average IQ, are generally employed, are socially competent, may use alcohol or other drugs in the commission of the crime, use cars to hunt for their victims, and may be interested in media coverage of the crime (Douglas, 2008) In contrast, disorganized crime scenes are characterized by a body that is not hidden, a weapon that is present, apparent spontaneity, a victim who is known to the offender, and aggression or sexual assault after death (Douglas, 2008). Disorganized crime scenes suggest offenders with below average IQ, unemployed or unstable employment, socially isolated, living near the crime scene, anxious, and subject to strict discipline as a child (Douglas, 2008).
Professional opinion of criminal profiling
One of the challenges for the advocates of criminal profiling is that there is very little scientific support for the idea that profiling actually helps identify and capture serial killers. There is certainly a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that profilers are able to match characteristics to perpetrators with a significant amount of accuracy. However, this anecdotal evidence is not the same as scientific evidence supporting criminal profiling for serial killer detection. As a result, it should come as no surprise that "one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of acceptance of criminal profiling is that there is very little authoritative material on it, and almost nothing in the way of scientific studies to support the claims of the profilers" (Muller, 2000). As a result, "many of the law enforcement agencies around the world are still quite skeptical of the work of criminal profilers" (Muller, 2000). In fact, in 1994, Curt Bartol polled police psychologists to determine their opinion of profiling; 70% of them questioned the validity and usefulness of profiling (Bartol, 1994).
Of course, one of the issues facing criminal profilers is the fact that there is a relatively small number of serial offenders, which makes it difficult to create a scientifically valid number of cases where criminal profiling has been helpful in perpetrator identification and apprehension. Furthermore, one cannot engage in any type of controlled research studying the efficacy of criminal profiling. Not only can one not authentically simulate a serial killer in a study context, but one could not…