Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Criminal Profiling: Part 1 History and Method


In 2002, over a three-week period, people living along the I-95 corridor from Maryland to Virginia were getting shot and killed as they performed mundane tasks such as getting gas. The nation went into a frenzy over this serial sniper and the profilers were called for their professional opinions. With no behavior to assess except for accurate marksmanship, commentators shot from the hip and offered all sorts of ideas about the white loner with military background driving a white box truck or van. One media darling with no profiling background even said that the box truck was now ditched in a lake somewhere.

It soon became clear that the offender was listening to what the commentators and police were predicting, because whatever was concluded about him was soon undermined. He doesnt shoot children - then he did. He doesnt shoot on weekends - then he did. So that was a bit of additional behavior, as were the quick getaways that suggested two people working together.

D.C. snipers, John Muhammad & Lee Malvo
D.C. snipers, John Muhammad & Lee Malvo

McCrary pointed out that when there are few clues in a case, people can develop tunnel vision, such as believing that the sniper drove a white van, which was based only on a witness report. No one really knew if a white van was involved, yet the media and the investigators clung to it. They also clung to the notion from a profile offered on television that the shooter was white (because most lone snipers up to this point have been white). But it turned out that they were wrong about the van, the offenders race, and the idea that they could publicly spout whatever they wanted without inflaming this UNSUB to keep killing. The shooter turned out to be a team of black men and one of them later admitted that he shot certain people after watching the police chief on news programs try to anticipate what he would or would not do next.

Because it was such an unusual spate of crimes, data from past cases that bore no relationship to it fueled erroneous conclusions. Yet all behavioral scientists know that human behavior is full of anomalies. While it was reasonable to say this shooter was white, that did not eliminate the possibility that he was of another race - or gender.

When Chief Moose later came out with a book on his experience, he indicated that the actual FBI profile did not make the claims that the commentators had made who had presented themselves as profilers. But the media had run with whatever they had said, conveying the impression that all profilers were of a common opinion, and all were therefore wrong.

Worse was the hasty application of geographical profiling, which had entered the profiling arena as another investigative tool, and which was probably inappropriate to use in such a large area. While it had proven itself as a way to pinpoint where an UNSUB lived or worked in contained areas, it had never been tested in a case like this. While the hope was that the public would now see what geographical profiling was all about, and would therefore vote to bring funds to the program, instead the pundits derided it as worthless.

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