Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Nuances of Profiling

As part of your consulting business, you offer expert testimony on a variety of topics, like crime classification, signature analysis, motive, and profiling. I've noticed how often members of the news media misunderstand the concept of profiling. Do you find that to be common?

Yes, I do. I've had to file affidavits explaining why the profiling we do is different from generic profilingan example of which is racial profiling. Generic profiles are an attempt to create a template for a specific type of offender such as a drug dealer, a terrorist, a skyjacker, or someone like that. The proposed purpose is to take that template and overlay it on a population group in an attempt to identify the type of offender you're looking for. It doesn't really work well, and what we do as criminal profilers is exactly the antithesis. We start with an actual crime and crime scene, and then work backward to talk about the characteristics and traits of that particular individual who might have done that crime. It's not a template; that is, it's not generic and it is not necessarily something that can be generalized. It's a specific profile of that offender based on the facts of that case. People do get them confused.

Also, we have to have a crime scene. Unless there's a crime or crime scene, as well as some forensic and behavioral evidence to analyze, we can't construct a profile. In trials I'm often busy educating judges and juries about what profiling is and isn't. We refer to the overall process as criminal investigative analysis, which is a method for analyzing violent crimes. Profiling is one service we offer. That is, we analyze and interpret crimes and scenes, and a profile is a product that may emerge from that process, but there is more to the process than a profile. People can get blinders about that. Profiling is a sexy, glitzy concept that's incorporated in the movies, and people think that's all that we do.

One behavior you've encountered during a criminal investigation that we know little about is the idea of false allegations. What's that?

That's an interesting phenomenon. Anyone who's in law enforcement for any length of time will encounter false or unfounded allegations of a crime. This can happen for a myriad of reasons, but it's something of which the public in general isn't aware. There is a fairly recent case of school violence that typifies this issue.

It was October 25, 2000, in Las Vegas, Nevada. A woman named Dylena Pierce, who was a mother of two and a popular 31-year-old English teacher at Silverado High School, found a note in the school mailbox threatening to bomb the school soon. She immediately reported it to the principal, who evacuated the school. The fire department and local bomb squad responded and conducted a search. No bomb was found. The following week, Ms. Pierce received three additional threatening notes from this unknown offender. The investigators contacted the FBI's "profilers" and asked their opinions regarding a couple of areas:

  1. A threat assessmentthe chance that someone was actually going to bomb the school, and
  2. A profile to help identify the offender.

Once the FBI profilers completed their analysis, they reported two things back to the investigators:

  1. The bomb threat was not credible, and
  2. Ms. Pierce, the victim, was the probable offender.

Then on November 3, Ms. Pierce initially confessed to an FBI agent that she was responsible for all four notes, and then she confessed to everyone else. She was subsequently charged with two felony counts of making bomb threats, and she asked for mental health assistance.

Overall these types of cases are not that common, but we see a good number of them. I'll give you another example of a rape case in which I was involved. After a year of unproductive investigation, a police department came to us to ask for our assistance in profiling a rape case. They advised us that they'd initially gone to a local psychologist who'd constructed an in-depth, 25-page profile of this unknown offender. Normally we don't "re-profile" a case. If it's been profiled once, we typically let it alone, but they really wanted our input. After reviewing the evidence, another agent and I concluded that the "rape" was a false allegation. We did not know that this was consistent with the opinion of the police department as well until after we'd advised them of our opinion. Yet this psychologist had constructed a profile with incredible detail, such as the fact that the offender was an amateur artist who liked to finger-paint as child, and none of it was true. So we helped the police construct an interview strategy that would allow the pseudo-victim to tell the truth, and she tearfully admitted that she had fabricated the entire incident and was greatly relieved to put it behind her. It was no wonder they couldn't find the guy that the psychologist had profiledhe didn't exist.

You have to be trained in a lot of different areas to engage in criminal investigative analysis. Part of it is assessing for false allegations and that's done in every crime evaluated. Many times that isn't the core issue and may be done almost unconsciously, but in order to ensure a thorough analysis, it's a necessary part of the analytical process.

Is there a concern about investigative analysis being done badly?

One of the issues with profiling now is professionalism. Anyone can raise his hand and declare himself a "profiler." This discipline is in its embryonic stages and perhaps it's a bit like medicine was in the Wild, Wild West. You get a lot of quacks and snake oil salesmen running around. There currently are no board exams or licensing requirements, but hopefully as the discipline grows, standards will emerge. There is a movement in that direction right now. The International Criminal Investigative Analyst Fellowship (ICIAF) is a group of FBI-trained "profilers" who have started their own organization and are conducting training sessions and setting up standards. In my opinion, one of the most important prerequisites is that a would-be profiler needs to be an experienced investigator, as this is an investigation-oriented discipline. You are going to be in a position of offering investigative or interview strategies to already experienced investigators. If you have no such experience, you really have no credibility and that's a huge issue.

In fact, the FBI selects its "profilers" from the ranks of experienced agents. When an already experienced FBI agent comes into the unit, there is a period of approximately two years of work and study, not only under the wing of an experienced profiler, but also attending outside schools. For example, one must attend the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to study forensic pathology, and also go to various interview and interrogation schools in addition to the FBI's interview and interrogation school. Other types of training must also be completed before the FBI determines that an already experienced agent is fully competent to do this type of analysis. And there's only one place to get experience with crimes and criminal behavior and that is in law enforcement. It's like any other area of expertise: You need to be in it every day. There are charlatans out there claiming they can teach you to "profile" after a one-day, three-day or five-day school. Some pretenders offer courses over the Internet as well. It's a shame.

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