Offender profiling

Offender profiling, also known as criminal profiling, is an investigative strategy used by law enforcement agencies to identify likely suspects and has been used by investigators to link cases that may have been committed by the same perpetrator.[1] Multiple crimes may be linked to a specific offender and the profile may be used to predict the identified offender's future actions. In the 1980s, most researchers believed offender profiling was relevant only to sex crimes, like serial rape or sexual homicide, but since the late 1990s research has been published to support its application to arson (1998), and then later terrorism (2000) and burglary (2017).[2]


Psychological profiling is described as a method of suspect identification which seeks to identify a person's mental, emotional, and personality characteristics based on things done or left at the crime scene.[3] According to Gregg O. McCrary, "the basic premise is that behavior reflects personality."

There are two major assumptions made when it comes to offender profiling: behavioral consistency and homology. Behavior consistency is the idea that an offender's crimes will tend to be similar to one another. Homology is the idea that similar crimes are committed by similar offenders.[4][5][6]

Fundamental assumptions that offender profiling relies upon, such as the homology assumption, have been proven outdated by advances in psychology and behavioral science.[7][8] The majority of profiling approaches assume that behavior is primarily determined by personality, not situational factors, an assumption that psychological research has recognized as a mistake since the 1960s.[9][6]

Profilers have been noted to be very reluctant to participate in studies of profiling's accuracy.[10][11][9][6]


Despite a lack of scientific research or evidence to support its usefulness in criminal investigations, usage of profiling by law enforcement has grown since the 1970s.[10][11] More recent attempts at research into profiling's effectiveness have prompted researchers to label it as pseudoscientific.[11] Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker compared profiling to astrology and cold reading.[12]


The most routinely used typology in profiling is categorizing crime scenes, and by extension offender's personalities, as either "organized" or "disorganized".[9][12] The idea of classifying crime scenes according to an organized/disorganized dichotomy is credited to the FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood.[13]

A typology of serial sexual homicides advocated by Robert Keppel and Richard Walter categorizes them as either power–assertive, power–reassurance, anger–retaliatory, or anger–excitation.[9]

Criminal profiling can also be ex-ante or ex-post. Descriptive profiling of a perpetrator is a type of ex-post profiling, and can be used to prevent a serial killer from striking again.[14]


There are three leading approaches in the area of offender profiling: the criminal investigative approach, the clinical practitioner approach, and the scientific statistical approach. The criminal investigative approach is what is used by law enforcement and more specifically by the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) within the FBI. The BAU "assists law enforcement agencies by their review and assessment of a criminal act, by interpreting the offender's behavior during the crime and the interactions between the offender and the victim during the commission of the crime and as expressed in the crime scene."[4] The clinical practitioner approach focuses on looking at each case as unique, making the approach very individualistic. One practitioner, Turco, believed that all violent crimes were a result of the mother-child struggle where female victims represent the offender's mother. This is also recognized as the psychodynamic approach. Another practitioner, Copson, outlined some principles for profiling which include being custom made, interactive and reflexive. By following these principles, the profile should include advice that is unique and not from a stereotype, should be easy to understand for all levels of intelligence, and all elements in the profile should influence one another.[4] The Scientific approach relies heavily on the multivariate analysis of behaviors and any other information from the crime scene that could lead to the offender's characteristics or psychological processes. According to this approach, elements of the profile are developed by comparing the results of the analysis to those of previously caught offenders.[4]

Wilson, Lincon and Kocsis list three main paradigms of profiling: diagnostic evaluation, crime scene analysis, and investigative psychology.[15] Ainsworth[16] identified four: clinical profiling (synonymous with diagnostic evaluation), typological profiling (synonymous with crime scene analysis), investigative psychology, and geographical profiling.[17]

Five steps in profiling include: One- Analyzing the criminal act and comparing it to similar crimes in the past. Two- An in-depth analysis of the actual crime scene, Three Considering the victim's background and activities for possible motives and connections, Four- Considering other possible motives. Five- Developing a description of the possible offender that can be compared with previous cases.[18]

One type of criminal profiling is referred to as linkage analysis. Gerard N. Labuschagne defines linkage analysis as "a form of behavioral analysis that is used to determine the possibility of a series of crimes as having been committed by one offender."[19] Gathering many aspects of the offender's crime pattern such as modus operandi (MO), ritual or fantasy-based behaviors exhibited, and the signature of the offender, help to establish a basis for a linkage analysis. An offender's modus operandi is the habits or tendencies during the killing of the victim. An offender's signature is the unique similarities in each of the kills. Mainly, linkage analysis is used when physical evidence, such as DNA, cannot be collected.

Labuschagne states that in gathering and incorporating these aspects of the offender's crime pattern, investigators must engage in five assessment procedures: One- Obtaining data from multiple sources. Two- Reviewing the data and identifying significant features of each crime across the series. Three- Classifying the significant features as either modus operandi or ritualistic. Four- Comparing the combination of modus operandi and ritual or fantasy-based features across the series to determine if a signature exists. Five- Compiling a written report highlighting the findings.[19]

FBI method

There are six stages to developing a criminal profile: profiling inputs, decision process models, crime assessment, criminal profiling, investigation, and apprehension.[4] The FBI and BAU tend to study specific categories of crimes such as white collar and serial murder.[20]


Profiling techniques existed as early as the Middle Ages, with the inquisitors trying to "profile" heretics.

The first offender profile was assembled by detectives of the Metropolitan Police on the personality of Jack the Ripper,[21] a serial killer who had murdered a series of prostitutes in the 1880s. Police surgeon Thomas Bond was asked to give his opinion on the extent of the murderer's surgical skill and knowledge.[22] Bond's assessment was based on his own examination of the most extensively mutilated victim and the post mortem notes from the four previous canonical murders.[23] In his notes, dated November 10, 1888, Bond mentioned the sexual nature of the murders coupled with elements of apparent misogyny and rage. Bond also tried to reconstruct the murder and interpret the behavior pattern of the offender.[23] Bond's basic profile included that “The murderer must have been a man of physical strength and great coolness and daring... subject to periodic attacks of homicidal and erotic mania. The characters of the mutilations indicate that the man may be in a condition sexually, that may be called Satyriasis”[24]

In 1912, a psychologist in Lackawanna, New York delivered a lecture in which he analyzed the unknown murderer of a local boy named Joey Joseph, dubbed "The Postcard Killer" in the press.[25]

In 1932, Dr. Dudley Schoenfeld gave the authorities his predictions about the personality of the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby.[26]:229

In 1943, Walter C. Langer developed a profile of Adolf Hitler that hypothesized his response to various scenarios,[27] including losing the war.

James Brussel was a psychiatrist who rose to fame after his profile of New York City's Mad Bomber was published in the New York Times in 1956. The media dubbed him "The Sherlock Holmes of the Couch."[28] In his 1968 book Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist, Brussel relates how he famously predicted that the bomber would wear a buttoned-up double-breasted suit, but edited out the many incorrect predictions he had made in his profile, claiming he had successfully predicted the bomber would be a Slav who lived in Connecticut, when he had actually predicted he would be "born and educated in Germany," and live in White Plains, New York.[12][29] In 1964, Brussel profiled the Boston Strangler for the Boston Police Department.[27]

In 1972, after the death of a psychology-skeptical J. Edgar Hoover,[26]:230–231 the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI was formed by Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten.[30]

Investigations of notorious serial killers Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer were performed in 1974 by Robert Keppel and psychologist Richard Walter. They went on to develop the four subtypes of violent crime and the Hunter Integrated Telemetry System (HITS) database which compiled characteristics of violent crime for research.[31]  

At the FBI's BSU, Robert Ressler and John Douglas began an informal series of ad-hoc interviews with thirty-six convicts starting in early 1978.[26]:230–231[32][27] Douglas and Ressler later created a typology of sex murderers and formed the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.[33]

The March 1980 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin invited local police to request profiles from the FBI.[32] An article in the April 1980 issue, "The Lust Murderer," introduced the dichotomy of "organized" and "disorganized" offenders.[32] The August 1985 issue described a third, "mixed" category.[32]

In 1985, Dr. David Canter profiled the Railway Rapist.[27]

The Crime Classification Manual was published in 1992, and introduced the term "criminal investigative analysis."[32]


Profiling as an investigative tool has a high level of acceptance among both the general public and police.[7]

In the United States, between 1971 and 1981, the FBI had only profiled cases on 192 occasions. By 1986, FBI profilers were requested in 600 investigations in a single year. By 1996, 12 FBI profilers were applying profiling to approximately 1,000 cases per year.[9]

In the United Kingdom, 29 profilers provided 242 instances of profiling advice between 1981 and 1994, its usage increasing steadily over that period.[9]

The usage of profiling has been documented in Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, Russia, Zimbabwe, and the Netherlands.[10][9]

Surveys of police officers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada have found an overwhelming majority consider profiling to be useful.[10] A 2007 meta-analysis of existing research into offender profiling noted that there was "a notable incongruity between [profiling's] lack of empirical foundation and the degree of support for the field."[11]

Profiling's continued popularity has been speculatively attributed to broad use of anecdotes and testimonials, a focus on correct predictions over the number of incorrect ones, ambiguous profiles benefiting from the Barnum effect, and the popular appeal of the fantasy of a sleuth with deductive powers like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.[9]

Notable profilers

Notable profilers include Roy Hazelwood, who profiled sexual predators; Ernst Gennat, a German criminologist; Walter Charles Langer, who predicted Hitler's behavior and eventual suicide; Howard Teten, who worked on the case of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination; and John E. Douglas, who worked on a wave of child murders in Atlanta in the 1980s.[34]


In a review of the literature by Eastwood et al. (2006),[10] one of the studies noted, Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990),[35] showed that trained criminal profilers did not do any better than non-profilers in producing an accurate profile. A 2000 study also showed that profilers were not significantly better at creating a profile than any other participating groups.[36]

A survey of statements made in offender profiles done for major cases from 1992 to 2001 found that "72% included repetition of the details of what occurred in the offence (factual statements already known by the police), references to the profiler’s competence [...] or caveats about using the material in the investigation." Over 80% of the remaining statements, which made claims about the offender's characteristics, gave no justification for their conclusion.[37]

A 2003 study which asked two different groups of police to rate how accurately a profile matched a description of the apprehended offender, with one group given a description of a completely fabricated offender instead of the real one, found that the profile was rated equally accurate in both cases.[38][12]

There is a lack of clear, quantifiable evidence of a link between crime scene actions (A) and offender characteristics (C), a necessary supposition of the A to C paradigm proposed by Canter (1995).[39][40] A 2002 review by Alison et al. concluded, "The notion that particular configurations of demographic features can be predicted from an assessment of particular configurations of specific behaviors occurring in short-term, highly traumatic situations seems an overly ambitious and unlikely possibility. Thus, until such inferential processes can be reliably verified, such claims should be treated with great caution in investigations and should be entirely excluded from consideration in court."[8]

See also


  1. Woodhams, Jessica; Toye, Kirsty (February 2007). "An empirical test of the assumptions of case linkage and offender profiling with serial commercial robberies". Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 13 (1): 59–85. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.13.1.59.
  3. Berg, B. L. (2008). Criminal investigation. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 9780073401249.
  4. Vettor, Shannon; Woodhams, Jessica; Beech, Anthony (2013). "Offender profiling: A review and critique of the approaches and major assumption". Journal of Current Issues in Crime, Law and Law Enforcement. 6 (4): 353–387.
  5. Goodwill, Alasdair M.; Lehmann, Robert J. B.; Beauregard, Eric; Andrei, Andreea (2014-10-01). "An action phase approach to offender profiling". Legal and Criminological Psychology. 21 (2): 229–250. doi:10.1111/lcrp.12069. ISSN 2044-8333.
  6. Chifflet, Pascale (2014). "Questioning the validity of criminal profiling: an evidence-based approach". Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology. 48 (2): 238–255. doi:10.1177/0004865814530732. ISSN 0004-8658.
  7. Jackson, Craig; Wilson, David; Rana, Baljit Kaur (2011). "The usefulness of criminal profiling". Criminal Justice Matters. 84 (1): 6–7. doi:10.1080/09627251.2011.576014. ISSN 0962-7251.
  8. Alison, Laurence; Bennell, Craig; Mokros, Andreas; Ormerod, David (March 2002). "The personality paradox in offender profiling: A theoretical review of the processes involved in deriving background characteristics from crime scene actions". Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 8 (1): 115–135. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.8.1.115.
  9. Snook, Brent; Cullen, Richard M.; Bennell, Craig; Taylor, Paul J.; Gendreau, Paul (2008). "The Criminal Profiling Illusion". Criminal Justice and Behavior. 35 (10): 1257–1276. doi:10.1177/0093854808321528. ISSN 0093-8548.
  10. Eastwood, Joseph; Cullen, Richard M; Kavanagh, Jennifer; Snook, Brent (2006). "A review of the validity of criminal profiling" (PDF). Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services. 4: 118–124.
  11. Snook, Brent; Eastwood, Joseph; Gendreau, Paul; Goggin, Claire; Cullen, Richard M. (2007). "Taking Stock of Criminal Profiling". Criminal Justice and Behavior. 34 (4): 437–453. doi:10.1177/0093854806296925. ISSN 0093-8548.
  12. Gladwell, Malcolm (November 12, 2007). "Dangerous Minds". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  13. ("Organized Vs Disorganized Serial Predators", https://www.psychologytoday)
  14. Mareile Kaufmann (2010). Ethnic Profiling and Counter-terrorism: Examples of European Practice and Possible Repercussions. LIT Verlag Münster. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9783643104472. Retrieved 23 June 2018. statistically proven to correlate with certain criminal conduct can be effective law enforcement tools
  15. Muller, Damon A. (2000). "Criminal Profiling: Real Science or Just Wishful Thinking?". Homicide Studies. 4 (3): 234–264. doi:10.1177/1088767900004003003. ISSN 1088-7679.
  16. Ainsworth, Peter (2001). Offender profiling and crime analysis. Devon Portland, Or: Willan. ISBN 978-1-903240-21-2.
  17. Quoted by Simmons, A. (2015). "What is Offender Profiling" (PDF). Handout from Retrieved November 20, 2015.
  18. Fulero, Solomon; Wrightsman, Lawrence (2008-04-18). Forensic Psychology. Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-1111804954.
  19. Labuschagne, Gérard N. (2006-10-01). "The use of a linkage analysis as evidence in the conviction of the Newcastle serial murderer, South Africa". Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling. 3 (3): 183–191. doi:10.1002/jip.51. ISSN 1544-4767.
  20. ("Behavioral Analysts",
  22. Skinner, Keith; Evans, Stewart (2013-02-07). The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook. Little, Brown Book Group. ISBN 9781472107855.
  23. Evans, Stewart P.; Skinner, Keith (2013-07-01). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. The History Press. ISBN 9780750953818.
  24. Canter, David (January 2004). "Offender Profiling and Investigative Psychology". Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 1: 1–15. doi:10.1002/jip.7.
  25. McLaughlin, Vance (2006). The Postcard Killer: The True Story of America's First Profiled Serial Killer and how the Police Brought Him Down. Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 9781560259091. Archived from the original on 2016-05-22. Retrieved 2015-12-10.
  26. Risinger, D. Michael; Loop, Jeffrey L. (2002). "Three Card Monte, Monty Hall, Modus Operandi and 'Offender Profiling': Some Lessons of Modern Cognitive Science for the Law of Evidence". Cardozo Law Review. 24 (195): 193–285. SSRN 1512469.
  27. Egger, Steven A. (1999). "Psychological Profiling". Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 15 (3): 242–261. doi:10.1177/1043986299015003003. ISSN 1043-9862.
  28. Brussel, James (1968). Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist. Bernard Geis Associates. ISBN 978-0-583-11804-0.
  29. Foster, Donald (2000). Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous.
  30. "Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on October 10, 2015. Retrieved November 9, 2015.
  31. Evans, Colin (1998). The Casebook of Forensic Detection. Science. ISBN 9781440620539.
  32. Devery, Christopher (2010). "Criminal Profiling and Criminal Investigation". Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 26 (4): 393–409. doi:10.1177/1043986210377108. ISSN 1043-9862.
  33. "Critical Incident Response Group". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 9, 2015.
  34. "'Mindhunter' Inspiration Revisits Atlanta Child Murders". August 2, 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  35. Pinizzotto, Anthony J.; Finkel, Norman J. (1990). "Criminal personality profiling: An outcome and process study". Law and Human Behavior. 14 (3): 215–233. doi:10.1007/BF01352750. ISSN 1573-661X.
  36. Kocsis, Richard N.; Irwin, Harvey J.; Hayes, Andrew F.; Nunn, Ronald (2000-03-01). "Expertise in Psychological Profiling A Comparative Assessment". Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 15 (3): 311–331. doi:10.1177/088626000015003006. ISSN 0886-2605.
  37. Alison, Laurence; Smith, Matthew D.; Eastman, Oliver; Rainbow, Lee (2003). "Toulmin's philosophy of argument and its relevance to offender profiling". Psychology, Crime & Law. 9 (2): 173–183. doi:10.1080/1068316031000116265. ISSN 1068-316X.
  38. Alison, Laurence; Smith, Matthew D.; Morgan, Keith (2003). "Interpreting the accuracy of offender profiles". Psychology, Crime & Law. 9 (2): 185–195. doi:10.1080/1068316031000116274. ISSN 1068-316X.
  39. Canter, David; Youngs, Donna (2003). "Beyond 'Offender Profiling': The Need for an Investigative Psychology". In Bull, R.; Carson, D. (eds.). Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp. 171–205. doi:10.1002/0470013397.ch7. ISBN 978-0-471-49874-2. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  40. Canter, D.V. (1995). "The psychology of offender profiling". In Bull, R.; Carson, D. (eds.). Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts. Chichester; New York: J. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-94182-8.

Cited works and further reading

  • Alison, Laurence; Rainbow, Lee (2011). Professionalizing Offender Profiling: Forensic and Investigative Psychology in Prectice. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-66878-1.
  • Canter, David; Youngs, Donna (2008). Principles of Geographical Offender Profiling. New York: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-754-62549-0
  • Douglas, John; Olshaker, Mark (1997). Journey Into Darkness: The FBI's Premier Investigator Penetrates the Minds and Motives of the Most Terrifying Serial Killers. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 978-1-439-19981-7
  • Evans, Colin (1996). The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World's Most Baffling Crimes. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc. ISBN 978-0-471-07650-6.
  • Jeffers, H. Paul (1991). Profiles in Evil: Chilling Case Histories from the FBI's Violent Crime Unit. London: Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-708-85449-5.
  • Ressler, Robert; Schachtman, Tom (1992). Whoever Fights Monsters: The True Story of the Brilliant FBI Detective Behind Silence of the Lambs. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 978-0-671-71561-8.
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