Criminal Profiling: Science or Art?

Serial killers have become a fascination for people around the world, and have become even more famous in popular movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, and The Following. Opposing these serial killers are criminal profilers. In the hit TV show Criminal Minds, profilers are portrayed as individuals who can identify criminals down to their age, occupation, and psychological mindset just by the characteristics of the crime. But just how accurate are these media depictions of profilers? I will be summarizing a chapter in the book titled Why We Love Serial Killers by criminologist Scott Bonn, which helps answer this question (for a more detailed review of criminal profiling and serial killers, see citation below for his book).

The start of criminal profiling is considered to be as early as the 1880’s, when doctors George Phillips and Thomas Bond were trying to formulate a guess on whom the notorious Jack the Ripper may be. In order to do so, they used autopsies and information from the crime scenes to compile patterns of behavior from the serial killer. Later, a criminal profile on Adolf Hitler was created in the early 1940’s to help predict different scenarios in World War II, which ended up being very accurate (i.e. it was predicted he would commit suicide if he was facing defeat).

Throughout these years and up until about the 1980’s, profiling was seen as an art. Psychiatrists would look at cases and use their knowledge of mental illness and crime to make predictions about the offender. But profiles were not consistent between profilers and depended largely upon their previous experiences in the field. Some were better than others, and it was seen as an art.

So how accurate is this profiling? To date, only one study on its reliability has been done, which was reported in 1981. This report stated that police agencies apprehended offenders with the FBI profile in only 17% of the closed cases. Further, in another 17% of cases, the profiles were considered to be of little to no assistance. However, profiles were seen as helpful, or as a guide, in 77% of cases.

Recently, criminologists, psychologists, and law enforcement agents have been working together to make it more of a science, in the hopes of making it a credible field. In order to do so, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) was created. This system is available to law enforcement agencies across the country when they are looking for the offender of an unsolved murder.

What this system does is this. When a murder is committed and the case is closed (the offender was found and convicted) all the information of the case is entered into the system. * Using artificial intelligence, this machine creates an “if-then” sequence that is then used to help create a profile for unsolved cases. For example, lets say John Doe is murdered and the local police force is looking for a profile for the potential killer. They collect all the information they can from the crime and put it into the system. The system then uses data from all previously solved cases and says “If John Doe was killed in this way, with this stuff found at the crime scene, then statistically, the killer is then likely to be (enter description).” As you can see, this system is much more scientific than earlier forms of profiling. However, there is no study to date that has looked at the accuracy of this system.

To this day, criminal profiling is continuing to see improvements. One such way is the utilization of forensic psychology. However, Richard Kocsis Ph.D., a forensic psychologist, admits that newer versions of profiling (e.g. Crime Action Profiling) are still more of a skill than a science. Overall, criminal profiling is still not an exact science, but has seen much improvement over the years.

Examining the legitimacy of criminal profiling is very important. For law enforcement purposes, developing ways to improve the apprehension and conviction of violent offenders will help keep communities safer. For the public, media’s depictions of criminal profiling can create unrealistic expectations of law enforcement agencies. Criminal Minds creates a very unrealistic visualization of what criminal profiling really is. This is not the only show to do so. Other shows, such as the different versions of CSI, also do this. The “CSI effect” can lead viewers to develop unrealistic expectations of law enforcement agencies, thus engendering dissatisfaction with agencies when expectations are not met.

* the specific information that profilers look for will be detailed in a future post

Bonn, S. (2014). Why We Love Serial KIllers (pp. 37-56). New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.


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