The Myths of Offender Profiling.

Sura Nualpradid

OK, the time has come to write about the bugbear of my life, ‘Offender Profiling’.  Recent publications  have encouraged me not to keep quiet about this any longer. Now is the time to explain why I find the term ‘profiling’ so problematic yet get stuck with using it.  For many people ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘personality’ profiling implies everything that psychologists and other behavioural and social scientists contribute to law enforcement.  One consequence of this popular myth is the growth industry of Criminology and Forensic Psychology courses in universities. Crime fiction fills the television schedules and crime fact the news programmes. So if you are interested in people and society but want to get out there and do something or just ‘get into the mind’ of miscreants, there is a natural drift towards the fictional, heroic figure of the ‘profiler’. This character knows what makes offenders tick and follows directly in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes that ordinary mortals cannot.

In case you haven’t read anything recently on Psychology and Crime I had better explain very briefly how I come to be caught up in all this.  A quarter of a century ago, by a roundabout route, I provided some elementary (Holmesian reference intended) guidance to a major police investigation into a series of linked rapes and murders around Greater London. Without checking with me that they had understood what I had suggested or why, the police drew on my comments to prioritise one of the handful of suspects they had identified through a systematic trawl of the criminal records. This individual was convicted and the police lauded my contribution as very helpful. The myth emerged that I had solved the crime with an uncannily accurate account of the person the police were looking for.  The advantage of this myth was that I was called in to give advice in many other investigations and get access to information the police hold on crimes and criminals so that I could start doing proper research in this area.

It is easy to forget that before I was given access in the early 1990s to information held by the police, to carry out studies from a psychological perspective and to build up empirically based models of differences between crimes and criminals, that this was a very unusual activity. Now, as for example illustrated by papers in The Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, (hey ho – impact factor 0.533…) which is in its tenth year, that has become a common form of social science research around the world. It is instructive to note that it was the recognition by the police that this form of research may be useful to them which made the research possible.  This research did not come about because of recognition by academics and professionals that the information collected at the tax payers’ expense could be harnessed to elucidate the nature of criminality.

I still bristle at how difficult it is to get access to these police files even after all the research that has shown their value over the last twenty-five years, despite ethical and professional controls on their use. Politicians complain at the amount of paperwork the police have to deal with and generate sound bites about the need for more ‘coppers on the beat’. They don’t seem to realise that all the records being collected (I repeat at tax payers’ expense – they are not the private property of the police) are a potential gold mine for researchers who could greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of police work if only given access.

Although access to real information on criminals is still challenging there are an increasing number of researchers around the world who are overcoming these challenges. (Interestingly it seems to be most problematic to get access to criminals themselves in the US, but much easier in developing countries such as India or Turkey.) These studies of crimes and criminals are going far beyond the idea of the lone, brilliantly insightful individual who solves crimes for the police – The Profiler. They also inevitably overlap with related areas, such as police interviewing processes, the detection of deception and the complex decision making tasks that Senior Investigating Officers face. In the way of these things the work has also generated decision support tools, notably ‘geographic profiling systems’ that draw on where crimes occur to indicate where detectives should look for a criminal. Taken as a bundle it seems to me that this wide range of research activity, nearly all of which is offline, in the sense that it is not a direct part of any investigations, does not really fit with the notion of an ‘offender profiler’ or ‘criminal profiling’, so cherished by crime writers. That is why I called this area Investigative Psychology.

That label ‘Investigative Psychology’ is increasingly used in textbooks and for university centres and for some police units, notably in Israel, Japan and South Africa. But terms that carry a mythical heritage are hard to kill off. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Anne and Curt Bartol, one of the most well established and highly regarded forensic psychology couples in the US, produced a book this year on Criminal & Behavioral Profiling.  Drawing on the skill that so dominates US texts, of taking an amorphous topic and turning it into something that can be taught to undergraduates, they have laid out an academic framework for something that really was a mass media invention.

They identify a number of areas of ‘profiling’ activity. What is really exciting, though, is that in their scholarly way they evaluate each of these areas and show them wanting. The area closest to crime fiction ‘crime scene profiling’ is characterised as “presenting new thoughts in difficult-to-solve cases”. Many social scientists with recognised this as the general contribution of social science to most areas of human decision making.  It is perhaps slightly disingenuous to grace this with the exotic term ‘profiling’.

Another area the Bartols identify is ‘suspect based profiling’. This is the sort of activity that leads police to stop and search a higher proportion of people from some ethnic groups than from others. It is therefore highly contentious and, as Bernard Harcourt points out in his excellent 2007 book Against Prediction, has a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in it. The more people of a certain sub-set you look at the more likely you are to find something dodgy about them supporting your views about what a dodgy lot they are.

The activity of carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’, in other words creating a psychological  profile of a dead person, especially when the causes of death are equivocal, is also an aspect of ‘profiling’ that the Bartols make clear is fraught with difficulty. It is not really clear what it involves or how reliable it is. They support the view that it “requires far more empirical support before its scientific basis is established”.

However, these are not just the concerns of academics. Nor are they only of interest to crime writers, like those who approach me every now and then, trying to get an authentic view of what ‘profilers’ are like and what they do. There are increasing attempts to get ‘profiles’ into court. This is either by the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant has all the psychological features of the person who committed the crime, or by the defence to claim their client was just not the sort of person who would do something so heinous.  Fortunately, given all the scientific doubts about criminal profiles, courts in the US, and even more so in the UK, are very reluctant to allow this type of evidence.  The slightly more focussed attempt to show from behaviour alone that a number of crimes were committed by the same person, known as ‘linkage analysis’, has fared slightly better in US courts but in the great majority of cases has not been allowed. This has not stopped lawyers trying to use linkage analysis in complete ignorance of the psychological and social issues. One even approached me to see if I would agree that offences had a common perpetrator because they were all committed on the same day of the month!

All in all, ‘Profiling’ is going to stay with us, fanned by popular interest and the fascinating challenges it poses to empirical research. I see it as rather like the James Galway effect that got so many youngsters interested in orchestral flute playing and consequently improved the quality of flute playing in general.  The continued fascination with the criminal mind and how to profile it is drawing in many very capable students and scholars. So although, as the subtext in the Bartols’ book makes clear, psychology and related social sciences have a long way to go before they can make a major impact on the processes of law enforcement, the path is now being cleared of the myths and half-truths that so inspired fiction writers. The way forward is now obvious.


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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Joseph Attard

Yes. Unfortunately it is very difficult to get the appropriate security clearance to gain access to prison inmates in the UK and the US. I have experienced this first hand for my doctoral research. Research with these inmates will surely enrich our knowledge base.

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