You haven’t got a clue…

Good evening readers,

Now what’s the one thing that most forensic psychology student dream of doing. You guessed it? Becoming a police profiler.

profiling 2We have all read psychological/ crime thrillers. We have all thought that Sherlock Holmes, Clarice Starling and Luther have a ridiculously interesting job, that we would all like a go at it.

I’m sorry, I’ll apologise now. I’m here to put a bit of a damper on the idea of police profiling. This is not for lack of wanting to become Lisbeth Salander or someone similar, but because police profiling is not as accurate or as useful as people think. Plus, you’ll be hard stretched to find a job labelled ‘police profiler’. But before I ruin your hopes and dreams, let’s just talk about what offender profiling is and where it came from.

Douglas and Burgess (1986) said that profiling aims to identify the maprofiler 3.jpgjor personality and behaviour characteristics of the offender. One of the first successful profiles was conducted by James Brussel of the ‘Mad Bomber’. Between 1940-56, New York City was plagues with a serial bomber. James Brussel studied photographs of the crime scenes and came up with a detailed description of the offender. This description suggested the bomber would be unmarried, a skilled mechanic, a Roman Catholic immigrant, and that he
would be wearing a ‘double breasted suit. Buttoned.’ Remarkably, the offender, George Metesky was single, catholic, foreign born and wore a double breasted buttoned suit. Brussel went on to assist the Boston police in the apprehension of Albert DeSalvo (‘The Boston Strangler’) and became known as the ‘Sherlock Holmes of the Couch’.

In recent times, police profiling falls under two approaches: Crime Scene Analysis and Investigative Psychology. Crime scene analysis is used by the FBI, and was developed after collecting data from 36 serial killers. Crime scene analysis has four steps:

  1. Data gathering
  2. Crime scene classification – here the crime scene is identified as either organised (planned, victim targeted) or disorganised (random, little attempts to hide the evidence).
  3. Crime scene reconstruction – trying to identify the modus operandi of the offender.
  4. Profile generation – behavioural characteristics, physical appearance of the offender is drawn up.

While the idea of Crime Scene Analysis sounds great, evidence suggests that this approach lacks scientific rigour, validity and reliability. Furthermore, there is no evidence of disorganised serial killing (Canter et al., 2004).  Overall, serial killers often plan their murders, which is what makes them hard to catch, and why we ‘need’ profiling.

The second approach to profiling is Investigative Psychology, and was developed by Canter after his profiling success. In 1986, Canter successfully profiled the ‘Railway rapist and murderer’, after 24 sexual assaults and three murders. Canter provided the profile for John Duffy, who was later found guilty. This approach says that the perpetrator’s behaviour at the time of the crime mirrors their behaviour in everyday life. This approach looks at five aspects of profiling:

  1. Criminal biography of the perpetrator
  2. Domestic and social characteristics of the perpetrator
  3. Personal characteristics of the perpetrator
  4. Occupation and education of the perpetrator
  5. Location of the crimes

profiling 1It is the last aspect of this approach that is most valuable. Geographic profiling analyses the location of each crime to determine the most probable area in which an offender lives. In 85 % of cases, the offender lived within a circle of their crimes. This is potentially the most useful area of profiling, as it can help narrow down the location in which the perpetrator lives.

As for the other aspects of profiling, they are a bit more dubious. Profiling only identified the perpetrator in 2.7% to 17% of cases (Copson & Holloway, 1997; Pinizzotto, 1984). Additionally, Bartol (1994) found that 70% of police did not feel comfortable with profiling.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against police profiling is the case of Rachel Nickell. Rachel Nickell was brutally stabbed and sexually assaulted in 1992 on Wimbledon Common. Scotland Yard opened an investigation in to her murder, and the investigation quickly targeted Colin Stagg. Even though there was no forensic evidence linking Stagg to the murder, Paul Britton’s profile of the killer fit with Stagg’s personality. Using the pseudonym ‘Lizzie James’ an undercover police woman contacted Stagg, to obtain information from him about the murder. During a meeting in Hyde park, they spoke about the murder, but Stagg later claimed he only played along with the topic to pursue romance.

profiling 4.jpgStagg was arrested and charged with the murder on the 17th of August 1993. However, when the case came to trial, the judge ruled that the police had tried to incriminate a suspect. Stagg was eventually acquitted in September 1994. In 2008, the case reopened and Robert Napper pleaded guilty to Nickell’s manslaughter (on the grounds of diminished responsibility). He had already been convicted of a 1993 double killing and was told he would be held indefinitely at Broadmoor High Security hospital. Paul Britton was charged with professional misconduct by the British Psychological society.

Whilst some aspects of police profiling may assist a case, profiling can also do some serious damage to a criminal case, and can lead to the incrimination of the wrong person.

My advice to anyone interested in profiling, is to consider other aspects of psychology or policing that might interest them. While it is romantic to imagine police profiling as a day job, it is an unrealistic expectation of working in psychology or the police force.

I guess my main aim in this post, it to warn people that offender profiling is not a reliable or accurate way of catching a perpetrator. Overall, police profiling belongs in fiction, where it will be profoundly more successful than in true life.

Love Em x

(The Little Blogger)


A book about Stagg’s experience:


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