How does criminal profiling work?

Not many successes for this semi-psychic method

One of the most prominent scientific theories of the 1990s was criminal profiling. Essentially, criminal profilers claimed to have extraordinary bordering on unique observational and interpretive skills that allowed them to predict distinguishing physical and mental characteristics of unidentified criminals.

In fact, some criminal profilers even claimed to be able to predict future crimes committed by certain unidentified criminals, based on profiles developed.

Criminal profilers claim to be able to use their unique investigative insights to develop a description and a list of personality traits that should allow investigators to narrow down a list of suspects, if not identify a suspect outright.

As a skeptic, I wasn’t convinced. You would think a technique used by the FBI would have a substantial amount of scientific research behind it, but when it comes to criminal profiling, that’s not the case. In fact, there’s a fair bit of evidence to debunk criminal profiling as, at best, a distraction and waste of time, or at worst, not much better than tea readings and psychic cold reading.

One of the most infamous serial killers of recent years went by the moniker “BTK.” He conducted home invasion style attacks and then tortured and murdered the families within, including children. BTK turned out to be a Kansas church leader named Dennis Rader, who evaded police for years. No criminal profiling of any kind helped in the slightest way. In fact, Rader caught himself in 2005 when he sent taunts to police on a computer floppy disk that was traced back to his church computer.

Rader left enough evidence at his crime scenes that if there was any basis to criminal profiling at all, they should have had a complete profile of him. They didn’t.

The Beltway Snipers were a pair of mass murderers who shot complete strangers in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. Police had no idea who they were or why they were shooting people. People in parking lots and gas stations were being shot to death, apparently at random, with Tarot cards being left as a signature and even a letter demanding $10 million in ransom left at one of the crime scenes.

It turns out the Beltway Snipers, 41 year old John Muhammed and 17 year old Lee Malvo, ended up catching themselves. On a phone call taunting police, Muhammed accidentally identified himself. They were eventually arrested Oct. 24, 2002. No criminal profile contributed to the arrest, and at least one expert on the case stated Muhammed didn’t match the profile made for him and police had no idea who the snipers were.

To me, criminal profiling smacked of narcissism in the way that certain people feel they possessed instincts no other person could hope for, and wishful thinking in the way that maybe some of these investigators wanted desperately to have superhuman observational abilities, despite the fact that they did not.

I think one of the best points is made by author Robert Todd Carroll on his The Skeptic’s Dictionary website: “Now comes a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool who conclude that FBI profiling of criminals is little more than cold reading and subjective validation at work. This was apparent to many people about ten years ago when Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, was caught and the profile was matched to the man. The FBI profile was wrong about almost everything regarding a man they’d been tracking for years.”

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.

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