"The best thing about the future is it comes one day at a time" (Abraham Lincoln)

    Criminal profiling was never designed to solve cases all by itself.  It is not a magic bullet.  Profiling is not an exact science and there is a lot of debate over whether it is effective at all.  It has, according to internal FBI reports as well as the research of others (Ault & Reese 1980; Britton 1992) achieved an effectiveness rate of approximately seventeen percent (17%).  This involves known cases (N=15) where profiling alone solved the crime.  The most well-known success story was David Canter's profile of the serial rapist and murderer John Duffy (the Railway Killer).  The most well-known failure was the Colin Stagg profile in the Rachel Nickell murder case.  What is commonly encountered in the effectiveness literature are studies which provide opinion evidence that profiling was helpful to a case, at least according to detectives who received a profile report (Copson 1995; Alison et al. 2002).   Perhaps one of the best testaments to the longevity of profiling is the fact that the FBI, even today, regularly staffs a Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) with twelve (12) profilers, who handle about 1,000 cases per year (Witkin 1996).  The BSU conducts training, research, and consultation in the following areas: Applied Behavioral Science; Conflict and Crisis Management; Futuristics; Juvenile Crime and Behavior; Managing Death Investigations; Psycho-Social Behavior of Violent Street and Prison Gangs; Spirituality, Wellness, and Vitality; Stress Management; Terrorism; Group Dynamics; Problem Solving/Crisis Intervention; Psychology of Perception and Memory; and Psychopathology.  Other natural areas of related expertise would be Child Molestation; Bank Robbery; Kidnapping; Suicide; and the Obscene Phone Caller or Letter Writer. The BSU also houses the Evil Minds Research Museum, which like most FBI facilities, is NOT open to the public.

    Current profiling practice recognizes over 200 different types and subtypes of murder, rape, and arson (Douglas, Burgess & Ressler 1992).  This proliferation of types is a mixed blessing.  For one, it helps to overcome the criticism that profiling is nothing more than naive trait theory (the assumption of stable personality traits indicative of behavior regardless of context or situation), but on the other hand, it makes the academic research enterprise more challenging.  Ultimately, profiling theory is trait theory since traits always have to be inferred.  Standard psychological doctrine holds that traits are never directly observable, so the process by necessity includes "interpretation" and "inference" which are somewhat more clinical arts than science.  Context or situation must take priority for predictive validity (e.g., it is better to say:  when Suzy is put in front of people, she withdraws from shyness versus saying Suzy withdraws from shyness when put in front of people).  In other words, traits require an environmental trigger or stimulus to be detectable.  Assuming naively that traits express themselves broadly in all situations is fallacious.  Profiling involves an "interpretation" of behaviors and physical evidence found at crime scenes (arguably not the best place to detect traits).  It then "infers" similar traits (i.e., latent traits) of similar offenders for similar crimes.  It is overly optimistic to think that a latent trait approach will zero in on a specific individual.  First of all, not all behaviors needed for such an approach are displayed at crime scenes, and secondly, the ability to make valid and inferences about personality configurations is a highly variable expertise.  TWO SOLUTIONS exist:  (1) improvements need to be made in police cooperation of crime scene data to obtain as much information as possible about the preceding and/or surrounding context or situations of criminal events; and (2) improvements need to be made in education and training of expert witnesses as well as academic refinement in the "blending" or "bending" of criminological, psychological, sociological, and psychiatric theories.                  

    There are no guarantees in socio-behavioral science.  Even the best prediction tools only forecast what some of the people will do some of the time (Bern & Allen 1974).  The practice of criminal profiling is becoming much improved.  More and more cases are utilizing the techniques as more police agencies and personnel are becoming more confident in the process and the results.  Courts, however, are still reluctant to admit the process as evidence as there is little empirical evidence of its ability to solve crime.  Holmes & Holmes (2009) believe that with the right training, particularly among those closest to the crime (i.e., the police), profiling would  be in a good position to advance remarkably.  Holmes & Holmes (2009) also discuss the interesting concept of computerized profiling.  Computerized monitoring of offenders is already in use. The drawback to computerized profiling is that a computer works only upon the information in its data base.  If we can continue to do empirical research on the traits and characteristics of known serial killers, serial rapists, or other such criminals, those data can be used to analyze a present unsolved case (a practice sometimes called "linkage analysis" by law enforcement).  The data could contain crime scene elements, personality characteristics, deviant behaviors, everyday activities, and other factors.  It would also be helpful if colleges and universities started more programs, degrees, seminars, or instruction in the field, this being in addition to private companies that teach the basic principles.  It can be noted that several such opportunities present themselves as on-line opportunities, and as Holmes & Holmes (2009) note, it will be up to the market to decide if enough academic rigor exists and "graduates" of such opportunities become successful, accomplished profilers.


    Borgeson & Kuehnle (2012), among others, believe the number one problem holding back the future of profiling is linkage blindness.  This term refers to: "the lack of sharing crime scene data with other agencies to help determine whether or not similar cases exist in a surrounding area or state; in order to see if similarities exist, agencies need to compare notes on the MO and any type of signature that the offender uses in committing the crime" (p. 13).  This problem may exist in law enforcement for a couple of reasons: one, a department may think it unwise to even admit they have a serial offender in their midst; and two, police may not even believe linkage analysis is possible.  This is unfortunate, since as Labuschagne (2012) proves, admission of linkage analysis evidence in court may be more acceptable than admission of profiling evidence.

    Linkage analysis is sometimes called comparative case analysis, but some people call it signature analysis (based on the assumption that signature is made up of modus operandi behaviors).  Most police departments that carry it out limit their analysis to MO behaviors, primarily because signature, by itself, compels looking for behavior that are "over and above" what is necessary to commit the crime.  Geographic profiling has always been big on linkage analysis, but the main linkage factor there is usually proximity to the crime scene.  Linkage analysis can focus on either similarities and dissimilarities.  A focus on dissimilarities can be useful for exclusion purposes, but it also can be useful in getting at the evolution or growing sophistication in MO of s serial offender.  Victimology has not yet made much headway in terms of becoming a commonly seen linkage factor, although outside the United States, that is not the case.  Some of the most common linkage factors are presented below:


    Is criminal profiling evidence and should it be admissible in court?  Turvey (1999) gives four quotes which provide contradictory views of criminal profiling as evidence.

     "Profiling is a natural contradiction. Its masters claim to understand the minds of strangers - often irrational killers. It is a soft, inexact science in a field that demands specifics." (Scott Gold and Greg Krikorian, "Profiling Not Always Model of Accuracy Forensics," printed in the LA TImes, July 18, 2002)

     "[W[hile handwriting is an inexact science, psychological profiling appears to be even more inexact;...psychological profiling remains primarily a law enforcement device for narrowing the field of suspects and is rarely admissible in court." (Valente v. Wallace, 332 F. 3d 30,34 (1st cir. 2003))

     "In my career of sixteen years in police work, I have found that [profiling] is truly a science." (Toney v. State, 1996, WL, 183411 *2 (Tex. App.), testimony of Detective Julie Hardin)

     "A profile is an investigative tool. It is not science, it is not DNA, it is not latent fingerprints...It is just one more tool investigators have. But a profile does not tell you who did the crime." ("Haunting the Hunter: Profiling the Sniper," statement of former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt in a CNN special.)

    The three most commonly used purposes of criminal profiling are: (1) linkage analysis -- evaluating whether two or more offenses are related; (2) motivational analysis -- detecting the offenders' likely motive; and (3) UNSUB profiling -- inferring the characteristics of unknown offenders.  Linkage analysis is the most common.  In order to testify in court, the criminal profiler must be admitted as an "expert witness."  An expert witness is defined as "an individual who, by value of education, training, experience, or skill, possesses knowledge beyond that of the average person" (Turvey 1999: 697).  The best expert witnesses are both experts at profiling (knowledgeable of the literature) AND the type of crime (e.g., murder, rape, etc.) under investigation.  Also, it is perfectly appropriate (and somewhat common) for an expert witness in profiling to be critical of the field, or parts of the field, while still presenting testimony on the most reliable parts of the field.  There have been many excluding courts and a few admitting courts.  Because even law enforcement has viewed profiling as an investigative filter technique, it seems unlikely that in the majority of cases, we will see profiles admitted on a mass basis in all types of cases and in all courtrooms.  However, the following cases are indicative of where profiling evidence was admitted quite successfully in criminal cases:

    The Louisiana v. Code case provides the best explanation of the evolving admissibility standards for profiling, as follows:

     (1) There must be clear and convincing evidence of the commission of the other crimes and the defendant's connection therewith; (2) the modus operandi employed by the defendant in both the charged and uncharged offenses must be so particularly distinctive that one must logically say they are the work of the same person; (3) the other crimes evidence must be substantially relevant for some other purpose than to show a probability that the defendant committed the crime on trial because he is a man of criminal character; (4) the other crimes evidence must tend to prove a material fact genuinely at issue; and (5) the probative value of the extraneous crimes evidence must outweigh its prejudicial effect.


    There have been fiction books, movies and television shows showing the fascinating world of the criminal profiler.  The Red Dragon by Thomas Harris certainly grabs one's attention.  The depictions in those various efforts are fiction, however, and we must always remember that.  The real world of the criminal profiler is much less entertaining and more subject to real world scrutiny.  There have been efforts to professionalize criminal profiling but little has come of it as yet.  Turvey (1999) touts the organization he helped found in 1999 -- The Academy of Behavioral Profiling.  Some of its goals include standardized training requirements and a code of conduct or set of ethical guidelines.  Improper profiling can have the bad effects of:

  1. Delaying the apprehension of an offender by providing false leads.

  2. Delaying the apprehension of an offender by pointing to false suspects.

  3. Delaying the apprehension of an offender by excluding viable suspects.

  4. Harming the personal life of a citizen by an implication of guilt based solely on the characteristics of a profile. (Turvey 1999: 717-8)

    The ethical guidelines of the Academy of Behavioral Profiling are:     Finally, Turvey (1999) presents some revealing definitions in reference to certain unethical conduct by criminal profilers, as follows:

Conformtainment -- Conformtainment is providing reassuring, if incorrect, opinions and commentary to the public through media programs designed to entertain more than they are designed to provide accurate information.
-- Murdertainment is providing sensational coverage of incidents involving death and violence through media programs designed to entertain more than they are designed to provide accurate information.
Forensic Fraud
-- Forensic fraud occurs when experts provide sworn testimony, opinions, or reports bound for court that contain deceptive or misleading findings, opinions, or conclusions, deliberately offered in order to secure an unfair or unlawful gain.
-- Dissemblers are forensic frauds that exaggerate, embellish, lie about, or otherwise misrepresent their actual findings.
-- Simulators are forensic frauds that physically manipulate physical evidence or related forensic testing.
-- Pseudo-experts are forensic frauds who fabricate or misrepresent expert credentials such as college diplomas, expert certifications, professional affiliations, or case-related experience.
-- Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law or in any sworn statements in writing. A criminal act, it is not sufficient that the statement be false to be considered perjury; it must be regarding a material fact - a fact that is relevant to the situation. Consequently, not all lies under oath are considered perjury.


    Regarding the formal education and training of profilers, it is obviously best they have straightforward, advanced degrees in the field of criminology.  This is not always possible, however.  Criminology as a discipline is much older, and far more advanced than the fields of criminal justice, psychology, and one could argue, even sociology.  Very few graduate programs exist where one can study criminology only, and even then, it might be possible to usurp a Ph.D. in that field by skipping over all the theoretical and etiological (crime causation) stuff by finessing a dissertation on some tangential topic like sentencing or public perceptions, for example.  Professionals who are most likely to take an interest in profiling are also busy, working professionals.  They don't have the luxury of taking three or four years off to enter residence in a criminology graduate program, and the online offerings are pretty slim.  Hence, it's not uncommon to see profilers with ease-of-convenience advanced degrees in often bizarre fields of study.  A profiler might have a Ph.D. (or its equivalent) in English, Public Administration, or Women's Studies (for that matter) simply because it was the closest, most cost-effective, or most convenient thing for them to get.

    Here's the problems with that.  While it's entirely possible that, through work experience, training, and so forth, one's mastery of criminology will remain intact through all the indoctrination inherent in graduate study in another discipline, the chances are fairly good that: (1) the student didn't have all that solid a grounding in criminology in the first place; and (2) keeping one's hidden criminological talents "secret" from the Women's Studies professors, for example, is going to result in a lot of "decay" in knowledge; and (3) becoming "open" about it and trying to "force-fit" or "merge" a criminological interest into the interests, agendas, and knowledge base of another discipline results in a lot of "bending" or twisting of the generally accepted knowledge in criminology proper.

Brent Turvey's Academy of Behavioral Profiling
Prof. David Canter's International Academy of Investigative Psychology

Ault, R. & Reese, J. (1980). "A psychological assessment of crime profiling." FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 49: 22-25.
Alison, L. & Canter, D. (1999). "Professional, legal and ethical issues in offender profiling." Pp. 21-54 in D. Canter & L. Alison (eds.) Profiling in Policy and Practice. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
Alison, L., Bennell, C., Mokros, A. & Ormerod, D. (2002). "The personality paradox in offender profiling." Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 8(1):115-35. [pdf available online]
Borgeson, K. & Kuehnle, K. (2012) (Eds.) Serial Offenders. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Bern, D. & Allen, A. (1974). "On predicting some of the people some of the time." Psychological Review 81: 506-20.
Britton, P. (1992). Review of offender profiling. London: Home Office.
Britton, P. (1997). The jigsaw man. London: Bantam Press.
Copson, G. (1995). Coals to Newcastle: Part I. A Study of Offender Profiling. London: Home Office.
Douglas, J., Burgess, A. & Ressler, R. (1992). Crime classification manual. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Holmes, R. & Holmes, S. (2009). Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool, 4e. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Labuschagne, G. (2012). "The use of linkage analysis as an investigative tool and evidential material in serial offenses." Pp. 187-215 in Borgeson & Kuehnle (eds.) Serial Offenders. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Ormerod, D. (1996). "The evidential implications of psychological profiling." Criminal Law Review 92:863-77.
Pinizzotto, A. & Finkel, N. (1990). "Criminal personality profiling: An outcome and process study." Law and Human Behavior 14:215-33.
Turvey, B. (1999). Criminal profiling. San Diego: Academic Press.
Witkin, G. (1996). "How the FBI paints portraits of the nation's most wanted." U.S. News & World Report, 32.

Last updated: Feb. 23, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
Citation: O'Connor, T. (2012). "The Future of Profiling," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from