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  • Writer's pictureMona Ray

Who killed? Crime Scene Profiling

#crime #profiling #FBI #psychology

During investigations, police use a variety of resources to identify offenders such as interviewing witnesses, managing informants, and using various experts.

In the 1970s the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit developed a crime scene profiling (CSP) technique that’s based on a psychopathological explanation of the behaviours of serial killers. Profilers studied the possibility of a connection between victims and offenders by linking a crime scene to an offender. Profilers infer and predict crime with criminals by pointing out traits, spatial patterns, and their activities. Crime Scene Profiling provides cues that help to narrow a pool of suspects.

The FBI's approach to CSP is based on deduction. This requires an open mind, collaboration, objectivity, questioning all assumptions, evidence, and opinions as well as self-knowledge. Also, avoiding distraction, using critical thinking regarding behavioural patterns, offenders' state of mind at the crime time, fantasy, motivation, planning, skills, wounds, blood stains and bullet trajectory analysis. CSA includes scrutinising photos, selection of victims, witnesses statements, modus operandi (MO) and the signature (Fintzy, 2000).

CSP analyses patterns, autopsy reports, and victim statements (in case of rape) and uses the victim profile that includes a general lifestyle and behaviours before the victimisation. Furthermore, physical evidence such as footprints, blood spatters, tools or paraphernalia is analysed. Anything about pre-and post-offence behaviour and information from other similar crimes that might be linked to the same perpetrator by physical or behavioural evidence. Subsequently, a profiler makes a hypothesis regarding the gender, age, race, ethnicity, level of intelligence, education, military service, profession, criminal history, relationship even the make and colour of the car that he/she drives. The accuracy of the hypothesis depends upon the profilers' experience and training. However, when hypotheses come more intuitively there is a question about their validity. Intuitive profiling is rooted in personality traits and behavioural consistency theories. Also, crimes scenes typology and linkage analysis consist of a crucial part of CSP. This work aims to critically analyse all the components of the FBI technique and its usefulness for identifying and apprehending unknown and dangerous offenders.

Personality Traits and Behavioural Consistency Theories

Snook claims that FBI profiling is built on trait theory that recognizes the common characteristics which incline individuals to differ from one another. However, the common characteristics assigned to a person are mixed with the circumstances in the sense that the person behaves similarly in diverse circumstances. Though, the proportion of these situations that are alike, may be seen as opportunities for moral or amoral behaviour and may be used as a chance for deception or honesty (Hartshorne and May 1928, p. 385).

Furthermore, Fleeson & Jayawickreme (2015) state that "… traits should have social-cognitive mechanisms that refer to predicting personality states— predicting the people of the state enact at any given moment… 50–75% of the variance in personality states was predictable from the goals people were working on at the moment. Thus, it has been shown empirically that indeed enactment of Big 5 states is predictable from social-cognitive processes" (pp.82-87).

Trait theory leads to the conclusion that there is a consistency in human behaviours and that relates also to criminals whose consistent behaviours during crimes reflect their everyday lifestyles. Simply put, a human being is a product of habits. We all have them, good or bad and they define our behaviour to some extent. For instance, let's say that you start your day by having a coffee and a cigarette or by taking a shower and doing yoga, it’s your individual behaviour pattern. However, if you're not feeling well, or you oversleep and you are late for work, these circumstances change your pattern of behaviour. Your pattern of behaviour may also change based on your recent goals, for example, if you train for a marathon you rather start your day with traing and will eat healthily. If your goal is just to relax because you are on holiday you may simply change your routine to less strict and healthy.

Mischel (1968) examined behavioural consistency about inter-correlations among behaviours and found that a specific trait concept tends to be low, thus putting trait theory into question. However,

Lecky, P. (1945) experimented self-consistency of personalities with 500 students and found positive results for the theory of self-consistency. Lecky sees the personality as organized, motivated by pleasure behaviour that is consisted of unstable settings. Although, self-control becomes questionable when self-unification is challenged by obstacles. Different individuals seek pleasure in different places, for example, a mother takes pleasure from looking after her offspring, a substance abuser in intoxication and a criminal in offending. Seeking pleasure is a prime motive that shapes behavioural consistencies.

Homant & Kennedy state that due to consistency, this means, through overlapping differences in a crime scene numerous variables might be used in a profile to "identify the subject as an individual". Thus, CSP assembles the personality of an unknown person from behavioural clues and crates hypotheses about the personalities of unknown offenders. Interestingly, it was found that the consistency of antisocial behaviours might be especially stable for aggressive individuals and that there is more evidence for behavioural consistency in domestic burglary than rapists (Homant & Kennedy, year, p.328).

However, Davis et al. (1998) found that rapists who broke into a house are five times more likely to be convicted for previous burglaries than those who do not enter the victim's house by force.

Based on those findings one can say that the FBI technique has solid psychological theoretical bases.


The theoretical underpinnings of the FBI's style of profiling assemble that the characteristics of offenders are reflected by the characteristics of the crime scene, crime scenes can be effectively categorised, and offenders' crimes tend to show characteristic patterns (Homant & Kennedy).

Furthermore, the homology hypothesis of CSP characteristics assumes that offenders' characteristics convergence is supported by Snook et al (2008) who claim that offenders show consistency in their style of offending across numerous crimes, however, also learn through experience. This is in opposition to offenders' characteristics divergence.

The FBI technique recognizes two types of perpetrators: organised and disorganised as a link between the crime scene and personality/background variables. However, the mixed group reflect the most crime scenes. Still, organised offenders are harder to find. Also, offenders can evolve from organised to disorganised and vice versa.

Moreover, the FBI approach recognises three aspects of criminals' action: Modus Operandi (MO), the signature and the staging.

The signature never changes but can evolve. Still, it is the only CSP assessment technique that courts in the US accept as part of testimony or in an appeal (Howitt, 2012, p.262). The signature refers to personality and consists of a part of MO.

A good example of the signature is Jack the Ripper who killed 5-6 victims. His signature included similarities in victims, all prostitutes, 24-45 years old, strangled, lowered on the ground, facing to the left of the killer, the geographical location raged from 1.6km to 2.6 km from each successive murder. He used a sharp, long-bladed knife. MO evaluated from outdoor to indoor to avoid interruption. Jack the Ripper was taking pleasure from picquerism (cutting or stabbing or watching this act), victims' submission, restrain and incapacity. Overkilling represented completed domination. He disgraced victims' bodies in public places as he felt invincible, beyond authority. He posed the victims' bodies except when destructed. Escalation of violence over time was present. No evidence was left (took the weapon to the crime scene and removed carefully) which indicates planning (Howitt, 2012, p. 262).

Furthermore, the staging as a part of MO aims to mislead but might be detected by recognition of inconsistencies. Additionally, the posing is a message and a part of the signature. Although there is an issue regarding the reliability of crime scene classification, the role of fantasy in serial sexual murders shows a higher degree of offenders' motivation that via rehearsal results in more organized crime (68% of the first murder committed by a serial killer was more likely to be organized while only 24% for the single murders) (Howitt, 2012, p.335).

In the process of profiling, an expert must recognise the level of intelligence, education, profession and social adaptation and distinguish between a planned, organized and impulsive, disorganised crime (Howitt, 2012, p.336).

The role of FBI profiling based on clinical intuition is questioned. However, it has been proven successful for unsolved cases (83%).

For example, in 88 out of 192 solved cases 15 out of 88 cases were successfully resolved due to profiling. This means that profiling helped with identifying, locating, interviewing, and prosecuting a suspect. Although it might be statistically insignificant, still 15 unsolved cases were eventually solved, and justice was administered.

The FBI profiling might be used for recidivism risk measures. For instance, impulsivity and sexual fantasies might be predictors of recidivism in the case of serial rapists (Homant & Kennedy). Thus, although there are controversies, the innovative approach towards finding a serial criminal might be useful when linked with other methods and evidence. Therefore, I will continue to discuss the FBI profiling method in my next post.

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