What Is Criminal Profiling?

Criminal profiling is a special investigative technique that uses personality and character trait information along with the actions of a perpetrator to help identify, locate, and track a criminal. The technique has been in use since the late 1800s and has proven successful in apprehending criminals in some situations. The trouble is that criminal profiling isn't an exact science, and recent studies have called experts to question the technique.

History of Criminal Profiling: When Did it Begin?

Criminal profiling techniques were first identified in the late 1800s when used in an effort to find and stop Jack the Ripper. Even though efforts weren't successful, criminal profiling slowly began to grow as a reputable technique from that point on.

Criminal profiling became more recognized as a technique with real merit to criminal investigators during the case involving the "mad bomber". A profile was developed for the killer known for placing more than 33 pipe bombs throughout New York City and detonating most of them over a 16-year period.

Investigators gathered information from letters left by the criminal and used that information to determine his work history, his background, and some psychological information about the killer. All the gathered data was useful in identifying George Metesky as the bomber and later apprehending him. Without criminal profiling, it's unlikely Metesky would have been caught. This case is the one that showed criminal investigators the power of criminal profiling. Or at least that established the technique has some merit to it.

criminal profiling

Is Criminal Profiling Reliable?

According to past criminal records, cases, and studies, criminal profiling isn't a very reliable technique. There are far too many variables for a criminal profile to be used to solve most crimes today effectively. While it's true that a few one-off cases seem like they were solved due to successful profiling, when you consider how often criminal profiling has failed or taken away from progress on a case, it's difficult to call it effective or reliable.

The Benefits of Criminal Profiling

Successfully closing an investigation means identifying who committed the crime. In many cases, that's the most difficult part by far. Developing a criminal profile of the person who committed the crime can help law enforcement decide which suspects to focus on most. Criminal profiling isn't an exact science, but it can help rule out some less likely options to speed along the resolution of a crime. Having access to the latest people records and other investigation technologies is equally important when solving a case, but a good criminal profiler is a tool that many law enforcement agencies find indispensable today.

Criminal Profiling Examples

There are several criminal profiling examples that show how some or all of the techniques related to criminal profiling were able to help law enforcement track and catch perpetrators. Many serial killers were caught, thanks to criminal profiling. George Metesky, or the "Mad Bomber," was an example listed above, but other killers, such as Ted Bundy and Wayne Williams, were apprehended with the help of criminal profiling techniques.

In the Ted Bundy case, investigators considered Bundy's psychological state and his tendency to attack young, attractive women in areas that attracted prime targets to narrow down his location and give the public enough information to locate Bundy eventually. The extra data built up through criminal profiling made it easier to explain what the public should watch for.

In the case of Wayne Williams, a serial killer who murdered for nearly two years, profiling established his victim preference and enabled law enforcement to disregard similar murders during the time. By canceling out murders that weren't connected to Williams, investigators captured the killer sooner, and he was eventually apprehended in 1982.

The Stages of Criminal Profiling

While it's useful to ask questions like what is criminal profiling, it's better to consider how profiling is used in a case. Criminal profiling is just one part of an investigation, and profilers help manage the many stages of criminal profiling that intertwine with the other steps of an investigation. Learn the stages of criminal profiling, and you'll better understand how the technique pushes along the progress of a criminal investigation.

The first stage is

  • Stage 1 - Profiling Inputs - Gathering all the data about the crime and as much data as possible about the perpetrator and the people in his or her life. Also, looking at the autopsy for the crime if one is available.
  • Stage 2 - Decision Process Models - Digging deeper into the classification of the crime itself. Considering the risk level of the victim as well as any motives involved.
  • Stage 3 - Crime Assessment - Establishing patterns surrounding the crime, including signature decisions and the overarching motivation fueling the crime.
  • Stage 4 - Criminal Profiling - Using the gathered data to create an estimated profile for the criminal. Creating a sketch to give law enforcement so they can track the criminal down.
  • Stage 5 - Investigation - Tracking, comparing, and evaluating suspects that fit the profile created by the criminal profiler. Using the gathered data to narrow down suspects to the one responsible for the crime.
  • Stage 6 - Apprehension - Catch the suspected criminal and interview them before finally arresting them.

The six stages above show how criminal profiling is used when solving crimes today and explain how a criminal profiler can be useful to a case.

What Is a Criminal Profiler?

A criminal profiler is a professional who specializes in gathering crime data and compiling all the available information to create as accurate of a criminal profile as possible. These professionals must be skilled at putting together many different bits of information and identifying the patterns in the random information.

Characteristics of a Criminal Profile

There are specific details that get added to most criminal profiles. These are the characteristics deemed most important to identifying the perpetrator and solving a crime. Specific details, such as the pattern of offenses committed, the sex, gender, and age of any victims, and any weapons or tools used to commit the crime, are all documented. Any potential motives are noted as well as psychological details. All these elements come together to create a profile that investigators can use to locate and apprehend a criminal. Court records and documents around investigations often list details from criminal profiles, and they make it clear that profiling is still used heavily today.

Criminal Profiling is Likely Here to Stay in Some Form

Criminal profiling has been around for more than 100 years, and while it's hard to say the practice is reliable, it has been used to identify and catch criminals in the past successfully. It's unclear whether criminal investigators will continue using profiling techniques in the future, but it seems like there are some beneficial elements to be taken from profiling, and any budding investigator should understand profiling and its potential to help with an investigation.