Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Criminal Profiling: Part 1 History and Method

Spilling into Fiction

Red Dragon
Red Dragon
Author Thomas Harris received permission to go to meetings and learn everything he could about the men who did the profiling. From them, he devised the novels, Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988). The latter was made into a movie in 1991, winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and bringing even more fame to the unit. This was considered a great benefit --- for a while.

The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs
DeNevi and Campbell say that unit chief Roger Depue was the model for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. Other sources indicate that Ressler (including himself) was the model, while still others say that it was John Douglas, who says that Harris spent a lot of time with him, as did the movie crew. He describes in Mindhunter how he showed Scott Glenn, the actor playing Crawford, some crime scene photos as a way for him to understand what the life of an FBI profiler was really like. There was also some indication from the fact that Crawford's original name was going to be Campbell that the model was John Campbell, who was also involved in reading the script.

Yet neither Harris nor the movie producers got it right.

In the story, a young agent-in-training, Clarice Starling, is sent to the prison cell of brutal serial killer and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to get information about the mind of "Buffalo Bill," a murderer who is holding a woman hostage. This killer was based on a combination of Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnik, and Ed Gein. Lecter stands on his own as a mad psychiatrist whose kills are "refined."

While the BSU crew looked over the script and suggested important changes, according to DeNevi and Campbell, apparently the only concession they got was a name change. The unfortunate impression was given in this story that young agents can become profilers without any field experience and that female agents might be left alone with dangerous killers—even go out on their own to try to apprehend them.

The novel and movie were such a success that a sequel was written. Hannibal became a bestseller and another hit movie—and was even more ludicrous in terms of FBI protocol and the psychology of serial killers. The divide between what the public now believed about the BSU and what the BSU agents actually did was widening.

In the midst of all of this, several of the first generation profilers had retired from the FBI and were now writing books about their experiences. Readers could not get enough. The profilers were touted as super-sleuths, each one a contemporary Sherlock Holmes. This idea spawned a television series, Profiler, in which a female FBI agent has extra-sensory powers of vision. Thanks in large part to the media, profiling itself went from being viewed as not just one among many crime investigation tools, but as the ultimate tool. Having a profile seemed like a guarantee that a serial killer would inevitably be caught, and those professionals who could do this were deemed to have uncanny, larger-than-life abilities. Fictional serial killers were redesigned to become their worthy adversaries.

But then things began to go wrong. It started with the media's misunderstanding of what a profile was, and with journalists seeking people who would provide a priori profiles of types of killers, or offer profiles on an instant's notice, with little to no evidence. The most common error was the view that profiling is a sort of blueprint or set list of traits for certain criminal categories against which one can measure people to see if they might be viable suspects. This is known as prospective profiling, akin to racial profiling, which is not what the BSUers were doing. For example, the media might ask, "What is the profile of an angel of death and does nurse so-and-so fit it?" But that's the wrong question. More accurately, law enforcement interested in a profile would ask, "From what you see at this crime scene, what traits or behaviors in a person might we be looking for?"

Responsible investigators resisted the media's demand, but there were always people willing to slap on the label "profiler" and step in to offer whatever was needed. The ideas and phrases were available, thanks to fiction and film. Some people even offered quickie seminars that fraudulently certified eager young novices as profilers.

Gregg McCrary
Gregg McCrary
As with all things that go up, coming down was not far away. Since profiling is not a miracle technique and since its success relies on both the information available and the skill and experience of the person interpreting it, there were bound to be mistakes.

"You have to be careful that the information you're using is accurate and complete," says Gregg McCrary. "If there's information out there that hasn't been collected, that can affect the profile's accuracy." He wrote a piece for the Congressional Quarterly in 2003 to make this point, saying that "if either the profiler or data are compromised, so is the potential for a successful outcome."

Where once those mistakes might have been absorbed and forgotten during the course of an investigation, the media glitz was too intense for that to occur. Between charlatans, over-eager professionals seeking the limelight, and simple human error, the love affair the media had with profiling had finally reached the honeymoon's end. Now they were looking for the pock marks, and they didn't have far to look. Psychologists who disliked how profiling had been touted by people with no psychological training supplied reasons why it was a poor method, and cases with high visibility showcased the errors.

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