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Criminal Profiling: Introduction to FBI Profiling

criminal profiling an introduction to fbi profiling by connor whiteley

In this forensic psychology podcast episode, we'll be looking at the amazing topic of Criminal Profiling, and hopefully dispel some of the myths surrounding FBI profiling.

Introduction to FBI Profiling By Connor Whiteley. COPYRIGHT 2021 Connor Whiteley.

Welcome to the first type of profiling, we’ll be looking at in the book. This is the style of profiling that has been adorned and made famous by Hollywood, TV and movies all over the world.

However, like most things in TV and movies they get it wrong. So, let’s look at what real FBI profiling is like.

Overall, profiling as practised by the FBI has failed to convince many psychologists of its effectiveness and this is the focus of the book, or at least this first part.

Generally, profiling is about predicting the characteristics of offenders.

I think this sounds great because it would be useful to know what characteristics the police need to look for. Since this would save the police time, money, and resources. Yet the truth is far from that simple.

Profiling as A Broad Term:

If I asked you ‘What is Profiling?’ what would you say?

Chances are you would say it’s what they do on TV. And you would be right and wrong.

Due to a lot of profilers don’t understand the board term of ‘profiling’. This is only reinforced by Horant and Kennedy (1998) who defined the following 3 types of profiles and these should be carefully separated.

Firstly, you have what’s known as crime scene profiling. This is where profilers use information from the crime scene to create a full picture of the unknown offender. Like, physical evidence.

Secondly, you have offender profiling. This is probably the type of profiling you see on TV and in movies. Where the profilers use a collection of empirical data to collate a picture of the characteristics of the offenders in a particular type of crime.

The final type of profiling is what’s known as psychological profiling. I know a lot of people think this is the only think psychology does, but it isn’t. Since this is a type of profiling where profilers use standard personality questionnaires and interviews to determine if the person matches the known personality of a certain type of offender.

Therefore, there is absolutely no surprise that there’s confusion about ‘profiling’. Especially,

when we consider how board profiling can be.

Viewpoints in Profiling:

As I write this book and I’m only on the third page, I had no idea I was going to be this passionate about the topic. But I might as well continue.

So, in profiling, there are two opposing viewpoints about what profiling should be. The first viewpoint is profiling is akin to clinical judgement which is informed by research but ultimately subjective. Due to the psychologist uses their expert opinion and the data to create the profile. This is what the FBI style of profiling uses.

Although, I need to say because my main background is in clinical psychology. There is a massive difference between clinical judgement and profiling. In clinical judgement, a psychotherapist uses a strong research base to inform their decisions. And as we’ll see later in the book, FBI profiling could be considered lacking in its research base.

In addition, in an area in clinical psychology called: Formulation. A psychotherapist would work with a client to create the clinical judgement. That’s the simplified version because the client (mental health sufferer) brings the expertise in themselves. Whereas in FBI profiling you cannot work with an offender to create their profile because you often don’t know who the offender is.

The other viewpoint is profiling must be informed by research and must be objective. This is a very important viewpoint for later in the book.

In the book, we’ll look at both of these approaches to get a full picture of profiling.

Misconceptions and Profiling in Courts:

I know I’ve mentioned it already but there are so many misconceptions about profiling in TV, books, media and films.

As a result, some of these portray profilers as amazing people who can get great insights from small amounts of data.

In reality, they can’t.

Whilst other media portrays profilers as flawed individuals.

However, something else these types of media teaches us is the importance of profiles to the criminal justice system all over the world. Yet in many countries, including the USA, profiling isn’t particularly allowed in court unless you can prove it’s based on data and not subjective opinions. Even then courts aren’t too enthusiastic about profiles.

Bringing us back to the question of profiling’s effectiveness in the real world.

Origins of profiling:

Like most things, there is an interesting backstory to profiling because Canter (2004) suggested profiling probably started in 1888 when doctor Thomas Bond created something akin to a profile of Jack the Ripper.

Also, for our non-British readers, Jack The Ripper was a major serial killer in the 1800s who was known for killing women. As well as he was never caught so there was a range of theories about who the killer was.

Going back to the story, when Thomas Bond said Jack the Ripper was probably a man of physical strength, great coolness and daring but without regular work.

Although, the origins of modern profiling can be traced back to 1956 and the work of the psychiatrist James A. Brussel on the New York bomber crimes. When Brussel used psychoanalysis to study the crime scene.

Then based on his assessment he said the offender was probably a middle-aged single male who lived with their sibling.

Interestingly, this turned out to be a somewhat accurate depiction of the offender George Metesky who committed the crimes.

Whilst Brussels had shown the power of the psychological approach to detective work. The profile wasn’t the reason for the arrest. Yet it still shows how psychology can be useful.

Subsequently, one of Brussels’s students, Howard Teten, became the first chief of the FBI Training Division at Quantico and housed in a nuclear bunker was the behavioural science unit. Then in the 1970s, they started to research the personalities, motivations and crimes of serial killers. Showing the sexual aspects in their crimes.

(I do understand if you’re slightly confused since not all serial killer crimes are sexual in nature.)

This formed the research base for the FBI style of profiling. (Douglas, Brugess, Burgess and Ressler, 1992)

The Term ‘Serial Killer’

Additionally, this FBI team created the term serial killer.

However, the idea of serial killers only committing crime sexual in nature is doubtful since there may be serial killers who don’t show sexual elements in their crimes.

This doubt could be increased by the disagreement over the definition of a serial killer. Since the FBI says is a serial killer is a person who commits at least three murders over more than a month with an emotional cooling-off period in between.

Yet some people disagree. The disagreement is understandable because you could argue a hitman or women isn’t a serial killer. Because they kill on the orders of other people.

Also, Ferguson, White, Stacey, Locen and Bhianai (2003) argued the lack of agreement in the definition of a serial killer makes it difficult for the field to progress.

As well as they reject Douglas et al (1992)’s idea that serial killers seek to express a need for power. Since it could be argued all criminals seek to express power.

Instead, they say sexual serial killers find killing pleasurable, kill 3 or more times and murders aren’t under the direction of anyone else.

How would you define a serial killer?

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