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Forensic Psychology and Criminal Profiling


Criminal profiling and forensic psychology have become vital tools in solving mysteries of crimes for many law enforcement agencies across the world. Criminal profiling employs psychology to access the minds of offenders, bringing them to justice. This is based on the proposition that a criminal’s characteristics can be ascertained from examining the scene of the crime.

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By putting together standard techniques and skills, hypotheses are developed, a crime is reconstructed, similar crimes are identified, the extent of criminal operations and designs is understood and crime is curbed. Whether this is a fact or an illusion, erroneous or not, criminal profiling continues to offer insight in crimes where even common sense fails. Indeed if there was no crime, then criminal profiling would not be necessary. Today, the FBI and Interpol employ it to combat crime the world over. Courts are accepting criminal profiling as evidence in prosecutions and through it; society is ridding itself of unnecessary evils.


We live in a society where criminals appear to outsmart the law enforcement agencies. People have been killed and their killers remain at large and unknown. This gives the justice system a difficult time to catch the culprit and ensure justice is served. Law enforcement departments have had to look for ways to contain these criminals before further harm is done to society. This requires meticulous investigation into the nature of the crime.

Thus, criminal investigators employ the skills of forensic psychologists to create drifts and styles of criminals to come up with criminal profiles that would aid in catching and prosecuting criminals. This may be equated to searching for a needle in a stack of hay but as Sherlock Holmes found out, a person skilled at making inferences can differentiate the waters of the Atlantic or the Niagara falls from a globule of water without necessarily knowing any of the places or having ever seen them. This knowledge is gained through an extensive and diligent study though no one can claim to be perfect at it.

This paper seeks to explore intriguing insight into the nature of criminal investigative psychology and a comprehensive evaluation of the practice in solving crime.

Forensic psychology is a scientific field of gathering evidence through studying an individual’s mental behavior, growth or family related background that is likely to raise the individual’s chances of getting involved in criminal activities. It is about incorporating intellectual studies into the system of seeking justice for crimes. It involves creating an individuality profile of an otherwise unknown criminal. According to Hess and Orthmann (2009), forensic psychology is the administration of empirical methods of investigation into criminal inquiries to establish a crime.

What is criminal profiling?

Criminal or offender profiling is a mechanism of finding criminals through analyzing the disposition of the offense and the method through which the crime was committed. It encompasses investigating the behavior and mental phenomena of unknown criminals by studying profiles. Certain descriptions and traits such as gender, age, race, level of education, height, family backgrounds, location, their attitude towards sex, weight, IQ level among other distinguishing characteristics are analyzed.

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This knowledge is considered alongside other pertinent details and tangible evidence from the crime scene, and then comparisons are made with already established personality stereotypes and psychological disorders to come up with a virtual representation of who the suspect may be. Consequently, the information is utilized by law enforcers to create a profile used to ascertain the identity of the criminal and apprehend them (Ainsworth 2001; Wrightsman, 2001).


Criminal profiling has been in use for a while now. The most notable early systematic form of criminal profiling can be evidenced in the heinous “Jack the Ripper” murder case in England in the late 19th century. Through informed deductions, Dr. Thomas Bond was able to reconstruct the crime scene and catch the serial killer.

The Second World War and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi spread the practice to other parts of the world especially the United States which commissioned psychiatrists to build Hitler’s profile to comprehend his thoughts and determine his subsequent actions. This profile proved accurate.

Consequently, it became a well known way of verifying identities of criminals. Over time, criminal investigators have in enlisted the aid of psychologists in creating profiles for suspects especially those who prove hard to catch.

However, with the increase of crimes and sequential killings, the FBI created a special unit known as Behavioral Science Unit. Through this unit, crime locations have been studied broadly, known criminals interrogated and approaches to crimes and behavior patterns developed. This way, profilers can now make comparisons of crimes and criminals and even make further recommendations on the profiles.

Criminal profile is nowadays an approved operation in various investigations. Subsequent technological advancements have enabled law enforcers make huge steps in curbing disasters before they happen or reoccur (Hess and Orthmann, 2009).

How criminal profiling works

Criminal profiling is a significant element of forensic psychology. Based on the scene of the crime, forensic psychologists, also known as criminal profilers develop psychological portrait of the offender. These psychologists are usually highly trained in the field of analyzing the minds of criminals.

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Criminal profiling is based on the proposition that personality is shown through behavior. According to John Douglas and Robert Ressler, criminal profiling experts, criminal profiling is achieved through four crime developments. The antecedent stage involves attempts to read the mind of the offender to find out why they did it, why they chose that location and that given day. Method and manner stage investigates the mode of the crime, the kind of victim and the instrument of execution.

A connection is made between the technique and the reason underlying the crime. Body disposal phase scrutinizes how the body was gotten rid of while the post offense behavior stage analyses the offender’s act after the crime for instance contacting the police, using the media and generally keeping up to date with the investigation. Through these stages, the criminal’s progressive moves are anticipated (Turvey, 1999).

Criminal investigations also use case linkage to ascertain if or not the crime relates to other previous cases of the same kind. In this case, physical evidence, mode of execution, the victim type and the modus Operandi (the characteristics of the crime area) are analyzed and comparisons are made with other similar though different cases. This way, law enforcement can know where to investigate and the court may also be able to ascertain if there is adequate evidence pertaining to behavior that can propose a prevalent intrigue and give joint trials or bring in other crimes to act as evidence. Here, two suppositions are commonly applied; the Modus operandi and the signature.

The most commonly analyzed physical qualities are gender, race, and residence, family status alongside personality traits, mental status and behavioral patterns. In other words, psychology is integrated into law to hunt down criminals.

Various theories and classifications of offenders have been developed by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI through intensive research and interview of serial criminals. Through assessing the crime scene and subsequent psychoanalysis, the unknown perpetrator is classified as either organized or disorganized. Sometimes the person can be both.

General criminal profiles

Organized offenders are criminals who tend to scheme the crime and choose their quarry in advance. The suspects carry along all they require and are painstakingly keen on details. This way, no evidence is left at the scene of crime and if any, it is very scanty. In other words, organized criminals execute preconceived crimes.

By use of deductions, forensic psychologists predict that organized criminals are more often first born children in their families. They also seem to be very intelligent and in most cases very composed individuals who may commit some crimes as a result of tension. These individuals are not mentally unstable, appear social and are keen on the progressive details of the crime. Most are remorseless.

Disorganized offenders are more often impulsive in carrying out crimes. Consequently, they leave trails at the crime scene. They tend to choose victims they have no personal relations with to make the crime less memorable to them. In most cases, little if any is communicated between the perpetrator and the victim. Disorganized crimes generally appear carelessly and arbitrary executed. Forensic psychologists can tell that the offenders are not very intelligent, are possibly junior individuals in their families, normally live on their own, are not very social individuals and may be living or employed not far away from the crime scene. They may also be mentally unstable or compelled by drugs.

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With further research, the profiling has advanced to further include other classification programs. Through these criminal profiles, valuable conclusions are drawn concerning the criminal.

Application of forensic psychology and criminal profiling

There are three major objectives of criminal profiling according to Hess and Orthmann: to present to the law enforcement a social and mental evaluation of the perpetrator of the crime; give them an intellectual interpretation of offender’s personal effects and to provide propositions and approaches for the interrogation process.

Criminal profiling is especially applicable in cases such as homicides, rape, murder, bombings and also arson crimes and other terrorist activities owing to their crime scenes. It is mostly used to track down and arrest sequential killers and sociopaths (Wrightsman, 2001).

Through the combined mechanisms, possible suspects are not only tracked down, but also the list of potential suspects created by law enforcement agencies is narrowed down considerably. Profiling provides detectives with something to work on for starters in situations where the suspect is not known clearly until the real culprit is nailed instead of random searches. It also provides a clue as to whom to look for by the use of psychological investigation.

Through determining and analyzing the antecedents and qualities of a suspect consistent with the crime, criminal profiling enables law agencies make predictions of prevailing and future offenders quite accurately. Consequently, criminals are contained earlier before they do more harm to society through their actions.


Not every crime scene fits a criminal profile. There are some crimes whose nature is complex and no amount of logic however meticulous, can fathom them for instance, the 1996 sensational murder of JonBenét Patricia Ramsey whose killer is still at large despite all speculations.

At the same time, it cannot be applied in all cases to apprehend, condemn and charge criminals especially in cases like fraud, bank theft, and in hostage situations. In such cases, it is difficult for forensic psychologists to provide a standard criminal profile.

It is also common for profilers to be mean with their information and ideas out of fear of the case or concept being stolen by others. As a result, most profilers do not share their approaches to solving a crime meaning little progress is made towards advancing the field (Turvey, 1999).

Sometimes investigators can make an early identity of a suspect who tends to match the profile and concentrate on that overlooking or closing on other possible clues. The initial lead could be erroneous. A lot of valuable time is then lost backing the wrong tree.


Despite the advances criminal profiling has made in combating crime, several criticisms have arisen concerning its accuracy, ethos in its practice and application, the competence of the forensic experts among others.

Some critics argue that the standards and criterion of profiling and the means used to make these profiles are old-fashioned and outdated and not at par with the prevailing psychological processes of analyzing individuals. That the use of general personality qualities in profiling is likely not to be helpful hence criminal profiling should only be used as an instrument with extreme caution and not a basis for court evidence as it leaves a lot to be desired (Ainsworth, 2001).

Another major source of criticism is racial profiling. Many argue that criminal profiling is being misused to target people of different races. Racial profiling was rampant in New Jersey where in an attempt to crack down on drug dealing, the state police created a drug peddler profile which suggests that majority of the peddlers are black or Hispanic. This way, police would arbitrary pull cars up with such occupants and search them on the pretext of looking for drugs.

Some of the searches yielded results though in many people were innocent. The people who raised issues over this claimed that it was due to their racial disposition that they were stopped and ransacked hence the phrase “racial profiling”. The fact that their race accommodated the drug dealer profile made people relate criminal profiling to racial profiling worsening the situation.

Sometimes the system has failed to guide investigators to the real criminal. Consequently, an innocent person could be reprimanded while the real perpetrator walks scot free carrying out more crimes like the Unabomber case and the DC sniper case (Wrightsman, 2001). The profiling led to the wrong man and it was the brother who caught the suspect Ted Kaczynski in the former case and the latter, the perpetrator was not one but two; not middle aged Caucasian but African Americans among other inaccuracies.

The profiling supposition that the conventional qualities of individuals are majorly constant and universal and its subsequent use to ascertain an individual’s motivation to do certain things in different environments is also a source of doubt. Many are skeptical about the criteria of observing personality traits.

Critics argue that since personality traits are a product of behavioral deductions, they cannot be used to make further deductions as is the case with profiling. They become ambiguous. They argue that for instance disorganized crime scenes i.e. bloody scenarios are not necessarily perpetrated by violent or mentally unstable misfits. That an otherwise composed and upright person can commit such hideous crimes when something incites them to.

The credibility of the process and competence of profilers has also come under criticism following that majority are not fully trained psychologists hence may not at times comprehend the reality as viewed from a psychiatric point of view. In many law enforcement departments, profilers are ex servicemen (Wrightsman, 2001). Methodological errors have been found in some profiler’s work. Some argue that criminal activity cannot always be rationalized as criminals are unpredictable.

Criminal profiling is not always fruitful. It is possible to carefully psychoanalyze a suspect and draw a profile only to end up missing the mark and having the wrong person entirely.

If there is no crime, then there would be no need for criminal profiling as everything will be normal. However, owing to the nature of the society we live in, marred by misfortunes, flaws and errors in our systems, the profiling system is no exception.


While forensic psychology continues to contend with criticisms from various angles, it is fair to note that people have different opinions on the same thing hence creating a standard operational profile can become quite a challenge. All in all, profiling is and will forever be a highly valuable instrument of enforcing law and combating crime. Its contributions to apprehending criminals should not be underestimated since it has given direction to situations which seemed clear cut or had no clue as to who the perpetrator was.

Profiling is however still a relatively new phenomena in practice thus still under examination. Nothing is perfect. The fact that it has proved useful in solving many notorious crimes that seemed difficult in the beginning; it should be given some benefit of doubt and ameliorated to the better. Matters of accuracy can be worked on with time and more research into criminal behavior. Its current and future trends will ensure that society becomes a safer place.

Reference list

Ainsworth, P.B. (2001). Offender Profiling and Crime Analysis. Portland: Willan.

Hess, M. K. & Orthmann C. H. (2009). Criminal investigation (9th ed.). Connecticut: Cengage Learning,

Turvey, B. (1999). Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. San Diego: Academic Press.

Wrightsman, L. (2001). Forensic Psychology. Belmont: Wadsworth.

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