Many people find criminal behavior to be a fascinating topic. Thus, whenever a particularly heinous crime occurs, news reports often include interviews with experts in offender profiling regarding the characteristics of the person or persons who committed the crime. "What kind of a person would commit such a horrific crime?" is often the central issue that is addressed in these interviews. But the answers to such questions aren't just intellectually interesting, they are an important investigative tool that often helps law enforcement officials catch criminals.
Modern offender profiling dates back to the time of the infamous serial killer "Jack the Ripper," who terrorized the city of London in the 1880s. Thomas Bond, a surgeon who assisted with the autopsy of one of the Ripper's victims developed a hypothetical description of his behavior that Bond hoped would help police capture the killer. As you probably know, Bond's profile and other investigative efforts failed to lead to an arrest. To this day, the identity of Jack the Ripper remains a mistery. Thus, offender profiling had a rather inauspicious beginning.
About a century after the Ripper's notorious killing spree, offender profiling was revolutionized by the results of numerous cases studies of convicted criminals. From these studies, profilers gained insight into the characteristics of individuals who commit different kinds of crimes. A classic studie in this genre was done by professional profilers John Douglas and Robert Ressler (Douglas et al., 1992). Douglas and Ressler spent three years interviewing 36 serial murderers and studing their crimes and their backgrounds. They are credited with having helping law enforcement officials understand the implications of organized and disorganized crime scenes. Typically, an organized crime scene with little physical evidence implies that the crime was planned and that the offender may be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. By contrast, a disorganized crime scene that is replete with physical evidence indicates a crime of passion and an offender that may have been under the influence of an intense emotional state, a psychosis, or a judgment-impairing substance. During the 1980s, the organized/disorganized dichotomy became a standard crime scene analysis strategy among homicide investigators.
However, professional profilers are not psychologists. many are, instead, experienced law enforcement officers. As a result, some psychologists have criticized their work as lacking grounding in psychological theory and research. Some of these critics have helped to develop theories and to conduct research that can be used to improve offender profiling. Many of them work in the field of investigative psychology that was founded in the early 1990s by British psychologist David Canter.
In one study, Canter and his colleagues analized 100 crime scenes of known serial murderers in order to test Douglas and Ressler's conclusions about organized and disorganized crime scenes (Canter et al., 2004). Canter and his team found that all serial murderers exhibit some degree of organization in their crimes. However, the crime scenes they studied suggested four different kinds of interaction patterns between killers and victims. The researchers called these patterns: Sexual control, Mutilation, Execution, and Plunder. Once a crime scene has been classified according to one of these four subtypes, Canter's research suggests that correlations between these subtypes and other behaviors can help investigators make predictions about other aspects of the crime and the offender.
Although psychologists such as David Canter argue that research-based profiles are potencially more useful than those based on investigative experience, most acknowledge that the human element is also important in offender profiling. That is, investigators differ in their ability to use tools such as profiles. Thus, the most effective profile, many argue, is the one that is scientifically sound and can be put to use by an experienced, insightful investigator (Winerman, 2004).
The World of Psychology p. 581
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