There are any number of reports that an intelligence unit can produce for a police department. But, among the many kinds of reports that an intelligence unit could provide for criminal investigators, perhaps the four most important are criminal profiles, geographic profiles, time- event charts, and link analysis.
Although criminal profiling is a staple of television shows such as Criminal Minds, profiling has only been around since the 1960s. Howard Teten was the first FBI agent to come up with a profile for the FBI. Prior to joining the FBI in 1962, Teten worked for the San Leandro Police Department in California. He was appointed as an instructor in applied criminology at the National Police Academy in Washington, D.C., but showed an interest in offender profiling and included some of his theories about profiling in his applied criminology course.
Teten studied under, and was inspired by, Dr. Paul Kirk, who in 1937 became head of the University of California-Berkeley’s criminology program. Kirk became well known for investigating the bedroom in the Dr. Sam Sheppard case in the 1950s and later testifying in the retrial of that case. Howard Teten was also inspired by the work of Dr. Hans Gross and Dr. James Brussel. Dr. Brussel was a psychiatrist whose criminal profile of a serial bomber in New York City in the 1950s led to the arrest of the man the media designated as “The Mad Bomber” (Winerman, 2004).
It was Teten’s work with the FBI that advanced the development of profiling in the 1970s and led to the establishment of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU). Since renamed the Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit (BRIU), it continues to provide services to other law enforcement agencies during investigations.
Criminal profiling, by definition, means developing a psychological portrait of an unknown offender. While criminal profiling has come under criticism in the past few years because of a lack of scientific rigor, research continues to play a role in advancing the scientific base for criminal profiling.
These days, profiling rests, sometimes uneasily, somewhere between law enforcement and psychology (Winerman, 2004). As a science, it is still a relatively new field with few boundaries or definitions. Its practitioners don’t always agree on methodology or even terminology. The term profiling has caught on among the general public, largely due to movies like The Silence of the Lambs and TV shows like Profiler. But the FBI calls its form of profiling “criminal investigative analysis,” one prominent forensic psychologist calls his work “investigative psychology,” and another calls it “crime action profiling” (Winerman, 2004).
Despite the different names, all of these tactics share a common goal: to help investigators examine evidence from crime scenes and victim and witness reports to develop an offender description. The description can include psychological variables such as personality traits, psychopathologies, and behavior patterns, as well as demographic variables such as age, race, or geographic location. Investigators might use profiling to narrow down a field of suspects or figure out how to interrogate a suspect already in custody.
“In some ways, [profiling] is really still as much an art as a science,” says psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, PhD, former director of psychological services for the New York Police Department (Winerman, 2004, p. 66). But in recent years, many psychologists—together with criminologists and law enforcement officials—have begun using psychology’s statistical and research methods to bring more science into the art.
To date, there is a lack of scientific evidence in support of the techniques used in criminal profiling, and the proclaimed successes of criminal profilers. The unscientific basis of profiling calls into question the validity of the methods it has spawned, and the ways in which these methods are used today. Academic evaluation and criticism promote the need for further research and scientific research on whether profiling can be a useful tool in criminal investigations (European Association of Psychology and the Law, 2011).
Some empirical evaluations of criminal profiling have been conducted. Two studies attempted to profile stranger rapists’ criminal histories from their crime scene behavior, and both reported some limited success (Abumere, 2015). A study that tried to predict the characteristics of burglars from their crime scene behavior also achieved some success in predicting criminal demographics and previous criminal history (Abumere, 2015). These studies have searched for relationships between criminal characteristics and actions at the behavioral level. There are several researchers (such as Craig Bennell at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada) who are studying the effectiveness of offender profiling.