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Offender profiling

Offender profiling, or more scientifically, psychological profiling, is a behavioral and investigative tool that helps investigators to profile an unknown subject ("unsub") or offender(s). Offender profiling is also known as criminal profiling, criminal personality profiling, criminological profiling, behavioral profiling or criminal investigative analysis. There are so many different names because of the multiple television shows such as Profiler in the 1990s and The Silence of the Lambs that have changed what the FBI refers to as "criminal investigative analysis." In modern criminology, it is generally considered the "third wave" of investigative science: the first wave was the study of clues, pioneered by Scotland Yard in the 19th century; the second wave the study of crime itself (frequency studies and the like); this third and final wave is the study of the abnormal psyche of the criminal.


Offender profiling is a method of identifying the perpetrator of a crime based on an analysis of the nature of the offence and the manner in which it was committed. Various aspects of the criminal's personality makeup are determined from his or her choices before, during, and after the crime. This information is combined with other relevant details and physical evidence, and then compared with the characteristics of known personality types and mental abnormalities to develop a practical working description of the offender.


The origins of profiling can be traced back to as early as the Middle Ages, with the inquisitors trying to “profile” heretics. Jacob Fries, Cesare Lombroso, Alphonse Bertillon, Hans Gross and several others realized the potential of profiling in the 1800s although their research is generally considered to be prejudiced, reflecting the biases of their time.

Noted Experts

Thomas Bond

During the 1880s, George Phillips and Thomas Bond, two medical doctors, tried to profile the personality of Jack the Ripper. Dr. Bond, a police surgeon who assisted in the autopsy on Mary Kelly, the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims, later becoming a pioneer in the field of offender profiling. In his notes, dated November 10, 1888, the sexual nature of the murders coupled with elements of apparent misogyny and rage were mentioned. Dr. Bond also tried to reconstruct the murder and interpret the behavior pattern of the offender: soon he came up with a profile or signature personality traits of the offender to assist police investigation. The profile said that all five crimes had been committed by one person alone who was physically strong, composed, and daring. The unknown offender would be quiet and harmless in appearance, possibly middle-aged, and neatly attired, probably wearing a cloak to hide the bloody effects of his attacks out in the open. He would be a loner, without a real occupation, eccentric, and mentally unstable. He might even suffer from a condition called Satyriasis, a sexual deviancy that is today referred to as hypersexuality or promiscuity. Bond also mentioned that he believed the offender had no anatomical knowledge and could not be a surgeon or butcher. Dr. Bond believed that the offer of a reward would result in those who knew the offender coming forward to speak with the police. Moreover, Dr. Bond was certain the same offender was responsible for the murder of Alice McKenzie. However, despite his offender profile, the Jack the Ripper case remains a mystery. Many consider Dr. Thomas Bond as the first offender profiler and a true pioneer in the field of offender profiling.

Walter C. Langer

In 1943, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) asked Dr. Walter C. Langer, a psychoanalyst based in New York, to develop a “profile” of Adolf Hitler. What the OSS wanted was a behavioral and psychological analysis for the construction of strategic plans, given various options.

Dr. Langer used speeches, Hitler's book “Mein Kampf”, and interviews with people who had known Hitler. This culminated in the presentation of an 135-page profile of possible behavioural traits of Hitler, and his possible reactions to the idea of Germany losing World War II. Dr. Langer’s profile noted that Hitler was meticulous, conventional, and prudish about his appearance and body. He was robust and viewed himself as a standard-bearer and trendsetter. He had manic phases, yet took little exercise. He was in good health, so it was unlikely he would die from natural causes, but he was deteriorating mentally. He would not try to escape to a neutral country. Hitler always walked diagonally from one corner to another when crossing a room, and he whistled a marching tune. He feared syphilis, germs and moonlight, and loved severed heads.

The profile also pointed out Hitler's oedipal complex, with the effect being the need to prove his manhood to his mother, and his coprolagnia and urolagnia. He detested the learned and the privileged, but enjoyed classical music, vaudeville, and Richard Wagner's opera. He showed strong streaks of sadism and liked circus acts that were risky and dangerous. He tended to speak in long monologues rather than have conversations. He had difficulty establishing close relationships with anyone. Since he appeared to be delusional, it was possible that his psychological structures would collapse in the face of imminent defeat. The most likely scenario was that he would commit suicide, although there was a possibility that he would order a henchman to perform euthanasia.

James A. Brussel

Between 1940 and 1956, a serial bomber terrorized New York City by planting bombs in public places including movie theaters, phone booths, Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Terminal, and Pennsylvania Station. In 1956, the frustrated police asked Greenwich Village psychiatrist James A. Brussel, who was New York State's assistant commissioner of mental hygiene. Dr. Brussel studied photographs of the crime scenes and analyzed the so called “mad bomber’s” mails to the press. Soon he came up with a detailed description of the offender. In his profile, Dr. Brussel suggested that the unknown offender would be a heavy middle-aged man who was unmarried, but perhaps living with a sibling. Moreover, the offender would be a skilled mechanic from Connecticut, who was a Roman Catholic immigrant and, whilst having an obsessional love for his mother, would harbour a hatred for his father. Brussel noted that the offender had a personal vendetta against Consolidated Edison, the city’s power company; the first bomb targeted its 67th Street headquarters. Dr. Brussel also mentioned to the police that, upon the offender's discovery, the “chances are he will be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.”

From his profile, it was obvious to the police that the mysterious bomber would be a disgruntled current or unhappy former employee of Con Ed. The profile helped police to track down George Metesky in Waterbury, Connecticut; he had worked for Con Ed in the 1940s. He was arrested in January 1957 and confessed immediately. The police found Brussel’s profile most accurate when they met the heavy, single, Catholic, and foreign-born Metesky. When the police told him to get dressed, he went to his bedroom and returned wearing a double-breasted suit, fully buttoned, just as Dr. Brussel had predicted. The single variation to the profile was that he lived not with one brother or sister, but two maiden sisters.

Dr. Brussel assisted New York City police from 1957 to 1972 and profiled many crimes, including murder. Dr. Brussel also worked with other investigative agencies. Brussel’s profile led the Boston Police to the apprehension of Albert DeSalvo, the notorious serial sex murderer known as the "Boston Strangler". The media dubbed Dr. Brussel as “Sherlock Holmes of the Couch”.

Howard Teten

Dr. Brussel wrote about his criminological approach in a book, which caught the attention of Howard D. Teten, a veteran police officer from California who joined the FBI in 1962. He was appointed as an instructor in applied criminology at the old National Police Academy in Washington, D.C. Howard Teten was interested greatly in the application of offender profiling, and had included some of the ideas in his applied criminology course. He met Dr. Brussel and exchanged investigative ideas and psychological strategies in profiling crimes. Although Teten disagreed with Dr. Brussel's Freudian interpretations, he accepted other tenets of his investigative analysis.

In 1972 the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico was formed with Teten joining FBI Instructor Patrick J. Mullany's team. Teten and Mullany designed a method for analyzing unknown offenders in unsolved cases. The idea was to look at the behavioral manifestations at a crime scene for evidence of mental disorders and other personality traits, thus aiding the detectives' deductive reasoning. Soon, their ideas on offender profiling were tested when a seven-year-old girl was abducted from a Rocky Mountains campsite in Montana in June 1973. The girl, Susan Jaeger, was abducted from the tent in the early hours; the offender overpowered Susan before she could alert her parents, who were sleeping nearby. When an intensive search for the missing child failed, the case was soon referred to the FBI.

Teten, Mullany and Col. Robert K. Ressler employed their criminal investigative analysis technique to track down the unknown offender. Their profile declared that the abductor was most likely a young, white, male, homicidal Peeping Tom; a sex killer who mutilates his victim after death, who sometimes takes body parts as souvenirs. Later, the profile led to the arrest of David Meirhofer, a local 23 year old single man who was also a suspect in another murder case. The search in his house unearthed “souvenirs”, body parts taken from both victims. Meirhofer was the first serial killer to be caught with the aid of the FBI's new investigative technique called offender profiling or criminal investigative analysis. A decade later, the technique became more sophisticated and systematic profiling tool renowned as Criminal Investigative Analysis Program (CIAP).

Richard Walter and Bob Keppel

In 1974 Robert D. Keppe] used new methods of psychological profiling to catch notorious serial killers Ted Bundy and the Gary Ridgeway. He combined his field expertise with criminal psychologist Richard Walter. As a psychologist in Michigan's notorious prison system, Walter had interviewed over two-thousand murderers, sex-offenders and serial killers. Richard began to see common threads among offenders and was able to group all killings and sex crimes into four distinct "subtypes": power-assertive, power- reassurance, anger-retaliatory, and anger-excitation or sadism. He was the first to develop a matrix using suspect pre-crime, crime and post-crime behaviors as a a tool for investigation. Richard later co-founded the Vidocq society, an exclusive organization of forensic professionals who solve cold cases for law enforcement agencies, worldwide. Together, Keppel and Walter created the HITS database, which lists characteristics of violent crimes so that common threads can be investigated. They also published a leading scholarly article for the FBI and violent crime investigators all over the world: "Profiling Killers: A Revised Classification Model for Understanding Sexual Murder".

John Douglas and Robert Ressler

In 1978, after Howard Teten left the Behavioral Science Unit John Douglas and Robert Ressler became pillars of offender profiling in the FBI. They spent much time studying convicted sex murderers and interviewing them, creating organized and disorganized typology, which is still in use today. Ressler was also responsible for the founding of the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) and at least partially responsible for the establishment of VICAP. Their studies provide more information on the behavioral patterns, traits and characteristics of criminals which can then be added to the offender profiling program.

David Canter

In 1986, police forces across the south of England were struggling to find the Railway Rapist who was then renamed the Railway Killer after murdering a victim for the first time. Dr. David Canter, a psychologist and criminologist from Surrey University, was invited to compose British crime's first offender profile. When John Duffy was later arrested, charged and convicted, it turned out 13 of Canter's 17 proclamations about the perpetrator were accurate. Profiling became commonplace in large-scale police searches afterwards.

Phases of profiling

According to Gregg O. McCrary, the basic premise is that behavior reflects personality. In a homicide case, for example, FBI profilers try to collect the personality of the offender through questions about his or her behavior at four phases:

  1. Antecedent: What fantasy or plan, or both, did the murderer have in place before the act? What triggered the murderer to act some days and not others?
  2. Method and manner: What type of victim or victims did the murderer select? What was the method and manner of murder: shooting, stabbing, strangulation or something else?
  3. Body disposal: Did the murder and body disposal take place all at one scene, or multiple scenes?
  4. Post-offense behavior: Is the murderer trying to inject himself into the investigation by reacting to media reports or contacting investigators?

A sexual crime is also analyzed in much the same way (Keep in mind that homicide is sometimes a sexual crime), but with the additional information that comes from a living victim.


Although offender profiling has earned much public attention, it is still not free from controversies.

Investigators may find an early suspect who appears to fit the profile, and ignore or foreclose investigating other leads. For example, Richard Jewell was extensively investigated (and attacked in the media) following the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. This not only caused great distress to Jewell, but delayed identifying the true culprit, Eric Robert Rudolph. Focusing on Jewell is a false positive. The added cost of the false positive on Jewell was that FBI and local police gave up the search for other suspects for quite a while. The converse of the false positive is the false negative, when investigators are blinded by an erroneous aspect of a profile, and clear a suspect who is actually guilty.

Another noted example of the failure of profiling is with the Beltway sniper attacks, where the killer was thought to be a middle-aged white male -- but in fact the crimes were perpetrated by two black males, one of whom was only 17 years old.

Some experts in criminal psychology have questioned its scientific validity. Many profilers and FBI agents are not psychologists, and some researchers who looked at their work found methodological flaws. However, these criticisms are seen as heuristic, rather than destructive.

Active profiling as allowed by the Department of Justice includes covert alteration of the environment to observe the responses of a suspect. This can be used to check whether the suspect's behavior fits the profile, but risks being labeled as police harassment or entrapment..

Profiling in popular culture

Several movies focus on profilers investigating on criminal cases. For example:

Many TV shows have portrayed profiling as "mystic" or supernatural, like:

Recently, another series with a team of profilers appeared, called Criminal Minds, but without the mystical element.

The Kay Scarpetta book series (written by Patricia Cornwell) also features Benson Wesley, an FBI Criminal Profiler based in Quantico, Virginia. He is featured in many of the books and displays the disciplines and skills of a Profiler.

In the tv series Waking The Dead, Dr Grace Foley (played by Sue Johnstone) is a forensic psychological profiler who constitutes part of the cold case unit.

The UK television series Wire in the Blood features a clinical psychologist played by Robson Green who profiles serial killers.


  • Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist by James A. Brussel, M.D., Bernard Geis Associates, 1968, Classic

External links

Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.