Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, is a discipline that involves careful evaluation of the physical evidence available so as to enable a systematic reconstruction of the crime for the purpose of identification of the perpetrator. Over the past few decades, the art of police detectives has increasingly been featured in movies and novels. However, art films portray such detectives as superhuman who can identify offenders of every crime. Contrary to the movie depiction of crime investigators, scientific studies have proved that it is not always direct to identify the real culprit through profiling. More so, there are several incidences of wrongful convictions, acquitted offenders and unresolved crimes, following the lapse of criminal investigation. That notwithstanding, the field of criminal profiling has been evolving over the past few decades. Today, there are lower chances of wrongful conviction than there were 50 years ago. Through continuous studies and analysis, scientists have established that offender profiling is an important aspect in apprehending violent criminals. This paper reviews some of the available literatures on how criminal profiling aid in the identification and arrest of murder criminals. This review limits its scope to recent studies whose publication dates 2005 onwards.
History of Criminal Profiling in Murder Crimes
Criminal profiling, as Turvey (2008) elaborates, became part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s scheme in 1970s. However, the discipline might have emerged much earlier, though with less definite structure. In 1957, for example, Criminologist James Reinhardt defined the characteristics of who he termed as ‘chain killers’. Although Reinhardt did not use the phrase offender profiling in his presentation, the procedures used in arriving at a chain killer were similar to today’s criminal profiling. Ten years after Reinhardt coined the phrase ‘chain killer’, a British analyst Jon Brophy advanced it to ‘serial murder.’ In another study that assessed the evolution of criminal profiling, Alison and others found that techniques recorded huge success in early 1970s to 1990s. Within this period, FBI perfected the art of airline hijacker profiling and also introduced the use of metal detectors in international airports. Today, criminal profiling has become an efficient science, with hundreds of people training in the field.
While evaluating the theoretical and practical issues of profiling, Petherick (2013) found that criminal profiling can either be reactive or proactive. Reactive profiling involves identification of the offender after the crime, proactive profiling involves the analysis of a prospective criminal’s behavioral characteristics to prevent a possible crime. However, proactive profiling has largely been misunderstood and is rarely effective. This, as Bourque and others (2009) imply is partly because the public has only been sensitized on reactive profiling and the investigators lack the necessary skills to carry out effective proactive profiling. As a result, the police have often been criticized as being discriminatory on the basis of race, gender and so on, while carrying out proactive profiling.
How does murder profiling relate to other crimes? Although an offender profiling can be applied in different cases, involving varying crimes, the science has been predominant in murder cases. However, the techniques in murder profiling relate to other crime profiling. Criminal profiling has recorded success in other repeated crimes such as rape, kidnaps, and child molestation (Vettor, 2012). Further, studies have established a link between other crimes and serial murder. According to Burgess (2014), for example, 70% of serial murders are sexually motivated. Therefore, murder investigators also require knowledge of profiling other crimes as well. In an analysis of the standard ways of crime classification, the Douglas et al. found that the characteristics of each crime may be varied (2013). However, there are peculiar traits common to all the criminals.
Aside from the mighty image of criminal investigators that has been created by the movies, is criminal profiling effective? Several scholars have undertaken to answer this question through primary research and analysis. According to scholars, criminal profiling is effective only in certain types of crimes. As Turvey (2011) explains, criminal profiling works in repeated crimes that involves a given signature and defined Modus Operandi (MO). Turvey defines a signature as something that the offender does to satisfy an emotional or psychological need (2011). On the other hand, MO is the procedure followed or the manner in which the crime takes place. Often, the signature and MO are the ones that enable an investigator to crack a repeated offender. Since the evolution of criminal profiling in 1970s, the technique has succeeded in the investigation of the murder, rape, serial bombings, among other repeated crimes. In addition, criminal profiling has been gaining prominence among the criminologist professions. For instance, 40% of the surveyed forensic psychologists and psychiatrist expressed that the field is valid and reliable in criminology (Torres, 2006).
Despite the success recorded in the field of criminal profiling, different analysts have sharply criticized the science and its effectiveness. In their article entitled, “The Criminal Profiling Illusion: What’s Behind the Smoke and Mirrors?” Snook and others term criminal profiling as only an illusion in the movie sector (2008). According to them, criminal profiling lacks the theoretical and sufficient empirical data to support its efficiency. In this extensive study, Snook and others identify the possible errors that can obstruct successful criminal profiling. For instance, they argue that an investigator may infer their judgment from fiction or ambiguous facts. Other critics argue that profiles misuse approaches of criminal profiling victimize certain groups of people based on no-behavioral traits. For instance, Ibe et al. (2012), identifies how racial characteristics have been misused in offender profiling in America.
Amidst arguments on whether criminal profiling is effective, must substantive data that shows how criminologists have applied criminal profiling in investigations. There is insufficient in the studies that focus on how offender profiling has been used in particular cases. Therefore, a study on how criminal profiling aid in the identification and arrest of murder criminals in a particular region such as the United States, can go a long way in completing the available statistics. It will avail data of specific murder cases that succeeded as a result of criminal profiling.
In a nutshell, the field of criminal profiling has been advancing over the past five decades. CP has largely involved murder cases; however, other repeated crimes can be subject for profiling. Although profiling has been part of criminological investigations for over four decades, there are insufficient data as to how it has aided in the apprehension of murder offenders. Further, some analysts have statistically criticized CP, arguing that it involves subjective decision making. There is, therefore, room for more studies to provide empirical evidence of the success of criminal profiling in murder cases.
Alison, L., Goodwill, A., Almond, L., Heuvel, C., &Winter, J. (2010). Pragmatic solutions to offender profiling and behavioural investigative advice. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 15(1), 115-132.
Bourque, J., LeBlanc, S., Utzschneider, A., & Wright, C. (2009). The Canadian Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Burgess, A. W., Ressler, R. K., & Douglas, J. E. (2014). Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives- paperback. S.l.: Free Press.
Douglas, J., Burgess, A. W., Burgess, A. G., &Ressler, R. K. (2013). Crime classification manual: A standard system for investigating and classifying violent crime. John Wiley & Sons.
Ibe, P., Ochie, C., &Obiyan, E. (2012). Racial Misuse of “Criminal Profiling” By Law Enforcement: Intentions and Implications. African Journal of Criminology & Justice
Petherick, W. (2013). Profiling and serial crime: Theoretical and practical issues. Burlington: Elsevier Science.
Snook, B., Cullen, R. M., Bennell, C., Taylor, P. J., &Gendreau, P. (2008). The Criminal Profiling Illusion What’s Behind the Smoke and Mirrors?. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(10), 1257-1276. Studies, 6.
Torres, A. N., Boccaccini, M. T., & Miller, H. A. (2006). Perceptions of the validity and utility of criminal profiling among forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(1), 51.
Turvey, B. E. (2008). Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. Burlington: Elsevier Science.
Turvey, B. E. (2011). Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. Burlington: Elsevier Science.
Vettor, S. L. (2012). Offender Profiling: a review, critique, and an investigation of the influence of context, perception, and motivations on sexual offending (Doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham).