Offender Profiling


Ainsworth Peter B., 2000, Psychology and Crime, Longman, ch 6

Brewer Kevin, 2000, Psychology and Crime, Heinemann, pp 37-42

Dwyer Diana, 2001, Angles on Criminal Psychology, Nelson Thornes, pp 47-52

Harrower Julie, 1998, Applying Psychology to Crime, Hodder & Stoughton, pp56-62.

Harrower Julie, 2001, Psychology in Practice, Crime, Hodder & Stoughton, pp 51-64

Dennis Howitt (2006) Forensic and Criminal Psychology, Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-129758-9



Films such as The Silence of the Lambs, and, in the UK, the television series Cracker have done much to (mis)inform the public about offender profiling. In the film The Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins plays the fictional character Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and mass murderer. As the film develops, Lecter helps the FBI to identify’ a serial killer through his insight and knowl­edge. In the British television series Cracker, Robbie Coltrane plays a maverick psychologist ‘Fitz’ who solves a number of serious crimes through a combination of psychological insight, deductive reasoning and flashes of inspiration. The solving of crimes such as serial rapes and murders arouses a great deal of public interest despite the fact that such offences are extremely rare. Despite its popularity in fictional programmes, the reader may be surprised to learn that profil­ing was used in only 75 cases in the UK in 1994 (Copson, 1995). Having said that, each year appears to witness an increase in profiling usage over the previous twelve months.

There is some debate in psychological circles as to whether psycholog­ical profiling should be seen as a scientific endeavour or merely as subjective deduction. As we will see later, the English psychologist David Canter has been particularly critical of the FBI’s approach to profiling, as he believes it to be unscientific. Garberth (1983) sees offender profiling as a combination of brainstorming, intuition and educated guesswork. Reisser (1982) suggests that, despite hopes that profiling should be con­sidered to be a scientific endeavour, it is in fact largely an inferential process similar to any other psychological evaluation with a client. One of the foremost attacks on profiling has come from Campbell (1976). He believes that profiles are often too vague to be of value, or rely on little more than common sense. He also suggests rather cynically that police officers might be more seduced by the academic standing and status of the profiler than by the actual usefulness of their material.

Gudjonsson and Copson (1997) suggest that it is easy to understand why there is confusion about what profiling involves as it is ‘neither a readily identifiable nor a homogeneous entity’ (1997: 76). Indeed these same authors note that surprisingly little has been published in the acad­emic literature on what profilers actually do and how they do it.

Psychology is seen by its practitioners as a science. For this reason, psy­chologists adopt a scientific methodology in their attempts to understand and explain human behaviour. A great deal of psychological research is carried out in the laboratory where hypotheses can be tested and conditions can be controlled. While the laboratory is an ideal place for exerting control over extraneous variables, some experiments con­ducted therein have been criticised for lacking what is called external validity (Ainsworth, 1998: 166). The concern is whether the results obtained inside the laboratory also apply outside. When one considers an area such as profiling, it is very difficult to conduct a laboratory exper­iment in order to test a hypothesis. Even if such experiments could be conducted it would be difficult to generalise the findings. Rather, in the area of profiling, theories have tended to be developed as a result of vis­its to crime scenes, analysis of evidence and, as in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, interviews with serial offenders.

While this latter form of data collection may provide interesting and possibly valuable insights, such a method of gathering information could hardly be said to be scientific. The views of one person may well be unrepresentative and for this reason, psychological research usually tries to use a large number of subjects, ideally selected randomly. Despite the difficulties, systematic controlled research will be seen as preferable to individual, anecdotal stories. In any case, information from known offenders relies on the offenders’ accurate and ideally unbiased recall of information. Social psychological research suggests that this ideal is unlikely to be met (see for example Kerby and Rae, 1998).

There were some isolated attempts at psychological profiling through­out the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see Brussel, 1968) and at least one writer (Tetem, 1989) has suggested that profiling has its roots in the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional character Sherlock Holmes. Certainly Doyle’s creation paid great attention to the actions of criminals in an attempt to identify who they might be. More systematic and modern offender profiling has its origins in the USA where the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit (now called the Investigative Support Unit) built up considerable expertise in the 1970s and 1980s (Hazelwood, 1983; Reisser, 1982; Horn, 1988). While there is still some debate about what exactly offender profiling is, underlying most defini­tions is a belief that offender characteristics can be deduced from a detailed knowledge of offence characteristics. A profile can often gener­ate hypotheses about an offender’s most likely demographic and physical characteristics and about his or her behavioural habits and personality. As such it can be a valuable aid to crime detection especially if the crime is part of a series (Adhami and Brown, 1996). Blau (1994) provides a good summary of what is involved:


The process is basically a method of helping to identify the perpetrator of a crime based on an analysis of the nature of the offence and the manner in which it was committed. The process attempts to determine aspects of a crimi­nal’s personality makeup from the criminal’s choice of action before, during, and after the criminal act. The personality information is combined with other pertinent details and physical evidence and then compared with characteristics of known personality types and mental abnormalities. From this, a working description of the offender is developed.

(1994: 261)

In Europe, the police define offender profiling as:


Attempting to produce a description of the perpetrator(s) of a criminal offence on the basis of analysis of characteristics of the incident and other background information.

(Stevens, 1995: 10)


This definition was the one adopted in the UK by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Behavioural Science Investigative Support Sub­committee.

A detailed examination of the crime scene might thus be seen as an essential first step in the gathering of relevant information. While a phys­ical examination is already carried out by forensic scientists searching for fingerprints, clothing fibres, semen samples etc., the scene can also reveal other clues to the profiler. As Blau’s description suggests, a detailed examination of the crime scene may well provide clues as to the underlying personality of the offender. For example, the FBI’s early work led them to believe that an important distinction could be made between organised’ and ‘disorganised’ offences and offenders. It appeared that some offences were carried out with a great deal of forward planning, while others were committed with little planning or preparation. In the latter case, a victim may have been selected at random, whereas in the former, a victim may have been targeted and observed for some time in advance of the offence. While a detailed examination of the crime scene will be helpful to a profiler, such an examination is not always possible. For example, some recent research in the UK (Smith, 1998) has sug­gested that profilers tend not to be brought in at the earliest opportunity, but rather are contacted when other more traditional forms of police enquiry have failed. By this stage the crime scene will probably have been disturbed and vital clues possibly lost.

If the police are investigating a number of rapes in the same area, they will be keen to establish whether the same person has committed them. The police obviously need to know whether they should be look­ing for one offender or several. In addition, if they can establish that the same offender committed a number of crimes, this will allow them to put together evidence from more than one crime scene in order to build up a better picture of the perpetrator. An initial investigation may lead the police to believe that the same person committed the crimes, especially if the victim characteristics and the timing and location of the offences are similar. However, a careful examination of the offences may lead a profiler to believe that two completely different ‘types’ of offender may actually have committed them. For example, one crime scene may show clear evidence of a planned and rehearsed attack, while another may suggest that it was an unplanned and impul­sive act. Thus, the psychologist may well draw up two very different profiles of the likely perpetrators and advise the police that they should be looking for more than one suspect. In some cases, DNA analysis may also be able to confirm the profiler’s hypothesis.

Profiling would appear to be more appropriate for certain types of offence than others (Stevens, 1995). Currently the most common crimes for which it is used are murder and the more serious sexual offences, especially where it appears that there is a series of connected crimes. The FBI believe that property crimes and robberies are not particularly suit­able for profiling, as such offences are unlikely to reveal many clues about an offender’s underlying personality.

It is important to dispel one myth in relation to offender profiling. Profiling cannot in most cases tell the police who actually committed an offence. What it can do is to suggest to investigators some personality and demographic characteristics which the offender is likely to possess. The emphasis on ‘likely’ is important. Profilers tend to talk in terms of probabilities rather than absolutes. A profiler may suggest that an offender probably lives quite close to the scene of the crime and is unem­ployed. However, it would be a brave and perhaps unwise profiler who went so far as to suggest that anyone who did not meet these criteria should be completely eliminated from the investigation. While there have been a number of famous cases where psychologists have been able to offer very detailed and accurate profiles (Canter, 1994) there are many less publicised cases where they have been less helpful (Copson, 1995). Because profiling has attracted such widespread public interest, the layperson may have an over-optimistic vision of what can be achieved. A note of caution is sounded by Jackson and Bekerian (1997) in their book on offender profiling. They note that:


the answers that are offered are not solutions. Offender profiles do not solve crimes. Instead ... profiles should be viewed as simply one more tool that can be extremely useful in guiding strategy development, supporting informa­tion management, and improving case understanding.

(1997: 3)


In many cases, the drawing up of a profile can help investigators to narrow down their pool of suspects and to avoid wasting time on lines of enquiry which are likely to be fruitless. If one of the police’s suspects does not match any of the profiler’s predictions, then the police might justifiably spend less time pursuing this person. In some cases the profile may well fit someone whom the police already suspect and will thus allow detectives to concentrate their investigations on the most likely suspect. In such cases, a profiler might also offer advice on the way in which an interview with the suspect might best be conducted. In other cases, the profile may help the police at least to know where to start looking for an offender, in terms of their most likely area of residence, previous convictions, etc.

An interesting example of how a profile can be helpful is provided by Ault and Reese (1980). This case involved a woman living in the northeastern United States who was raped and subsequently reported the offence to the local police department. The investigating officer realised that the circumstances of the offence were similar to six previous rapes in the area and that they may well have all been carried out by the same person.

Unfortunately the six previous rapes had yielded few good clues and the police had been unable to identify a suspect. The case files were then sent to the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit and a psychological profile con­structed. This investigation concluded that the same person had indeed committed all seven crimes. The suspect was predicted to be a white male, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He was most likely to be divorced or separated and to have a job as a casual labourer or similar. It was also hypothesised that he would have had a high school education and to live in the immediate area of the offences. It was also thought that he would be likely to have a poor self-image, and to have previous convictions for minor sexual offences. The FBI Unit also predicted that the police in the area might have stopped the person previously, as he would probably have been out on the streets in the early hours of the morning.

Upon receiving this profile, the police narrowed down their list of sus­pects to some 40 local males who met the age profile. Using other information provided by the profiler, they then focused their investiga­tion on one particular individual. This person was soon arrested and was subsequently convicted of all the offences.

While this is an interesting illustration of what can be achieved, profil­ing does not always have such dramatic and successful results. When a profile proves to be accurate and leads to the conviction of a perpetrator, the media may well take an interest; but such successes will perhaps be rare. Because psychological profiling is still in its infancy, there have been few scientific and systematic studies to test exactly how useful it is. The fact that profiling can take different forms also serves to make evalu­ation difficult. It has proved difficult to establish the number of cases in which the information is ‘better’ than that which detectives working on the case could have deduced for themselves. If only half of the informa­tion that a profiler provides turns out to be accurate should we count this as helpful? If profilers tend only to be brought in on those cases in which the police are already experiencing difficulty, is it reasonable to expect that a profiler will have a high success rate? A further problem with regard to evaluation concerns the likely accuracy of information about whether or not a profiler’s input really was helpful. It is just possi­ble that a senior detective with a reputation to uphold will seek to play down the usefulness of an input from an ‘outsider’ such as a profiler (Ainsworth, 2000; Smith, 1998).


The American Approach


The FBI’s approach


The FBI’s early approach was based on in-depth interviews with some 36 sexually orientated serial murderers. The technique tried to identify the major personality and behavioural characteristics of serious offenders. This was based on a very detailed analysis of the crimes they had commit­ted. Thus the FBI would consider evidence derived from the crime scene, the nature of the attacks, any forensic evidence, medical examin­ers reports and the characteristics of the victim. Such information would then help investigators to classify the offender and to make predictions as to their likely characteristics. Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) define the FBI’s approach to profiling as:

An educated attempt to provide investigative agencies with specific informa­tion as to the type of individual who committed a certain crime .. a profile is based on the characteristic patterns or factors of uniqueness that distinguish certain individuals from the general population.

One illustration of the FBI’s work is provided by the distinction made between ‘organised’ and ‘disorganised’ murderers. Organised offenders tend to commit crimes which have clearly been planned, where there is an attempt to control, where few clues are left and where the victim is a targeted stranger. By contrast, the disorganised offender would be more likely to use a sudden, unrehearsed style with a minimum use of restraint and little attempt to hide evidence. Knowledge is built up by studying the crime scene and the exact nature of the attack. As a result of this, the likely offender would then be classified and reference made to the characteristics that the offender was pre­sumed to possess. For example, the FBI’s research led them to believe that an organised criminal would typically be of above average intelli­gence, be sexually and socially competent and to be living with a partner. He would also be likely to be suffering from depression or experiencing a great deal of anger around the time of the attack. Following the crime, he would tend to follow the media coverage of the attack closely and may even leave the area shortly afterwards. By contrast, a disorganised attacker was believed to be someone who lived alone (probably close to the scene), was sexually or socially inadequate, had been mistreated as a child and was frightened and confused at the time of the attack.

Although this approach appears to be objective, there is inevitably some degree of subjective interpretation by the individual profiler. While relying on the same information, each profiler decides what emphasis should be placed on the various characteristics and thus what type of per­son the suspect is likely to be. It is this fact that has led some academics to question whether the approach is scientific or merely personal intu­ition (for example Rossmo, 1996). The fact that much of the FBI’s approach stemmed from interviews with such a small sample of ‘special­ist’ offenders has also been a cause for concern.

Hazelwood and Burgess (1987) argue that a very careful study of the exact behaviour of an offender can lead to a better understanding of the underlying motive for an attack. This in turn provides insight into the type of person the offender is likely to be. Although this may not be possible in exact terms, Hazelwood believes that descriptions of an offender can be built up to a point where they will be recognisable to his friends and family. The profiler would look for a systematic behaviour pattern that would then allow the use of a typology. One example of this is whether a sexual assault or rape can be categorised as predomi­nantly selfish or unselfish. Although it might reasonably be argued that all rapes are selfish in that the victim’s rights are totally ignored, some rapists exhibit behaviour that Hazelwood has labelled pseudo-unselfish. In this case the offender’s verbal utterances will tend to be reassuring, complimentary, self-demeaning, ego building, concerned, personal, non-profane, inquisitive and apologetic.

This type of rapist will often try to involve the victim in the act. He appears to be seeking intimacy with the victim by, for example, asking her to kiss or fondle him and he will fondle parts of the victim’s body before intercourse. Such an attacker would appear not to wish to harm the person physically (other than the rape itself) or to force her into acts when she resists. When force is used it will tend to be in order to intimi­date rather than to harm. This offender’s style of behaviour is thought to stem from a lack of confidence on his part. If the victim does resist physi­cally the assailant may end the attack or may even attempt some kind of compromise with the victim. The victim’s resistance may serve to destroy the rapist’s fantasy that she is a willing participant in the act.

By contrast, the so-called selfish rapist appears to be solely interested in self-gratification and shows absolutely no regard for his victim’s wel­fare, wishes or feelings. His verbal behaviour will be characterised as offensive, threatening, profane, abusive, demeaning, humiliating, demanding, impersonal and sexually orientated. Unlike the so-called unselfish rapist, this type of assailant will do whatever he wants, irrespec­tive of the victim’s suffering or feelings. Resistance on the part of the victim will tend to have little deterrent effect, as sexual domination would appear to be the primary motivation.

Once the rapist’s behaviour is classified as broadly selfish or unselfish, further categorisation may be attempted. This is done on the basis of the apparent motivation for the attack. Hazelwood draws on the classifica­tion system first used by Groth et al. (1977). This typology is based on the assumption that power, anger and sexuality are fundamental compo­nents of all rapes. The most common type of behaviour is classified as power-reassurance. For such offenders, the primary motivation is an attempt to remove doubts or fears about their own sexual inadequacy and masculinity. Such rapists tend to exhibit pseudo-unselfish behaviour and not to use large amounts of force. Their attacks are usually carefully planned and the victims are often within the same age range as the offender. Following the attack, the rapist may apologise to the victim or ask to be forgiven and he may contact the victim again later on. The behaviour of such offenders is thought to go some way towards reassur­ing them about their sexual insecurity. However, this effect tends to be short-lived and the offender may strike again in the near future, probably in the same area. Such attackers often take an item of clothing from their victims as a souvenir and they may even keep records of their crimes. It is believed that such attackers are unlikely to grow out of their offending and will continue until caught.

By contrast the power-assertive rapist harbours no doubts about his sexuality. Such a person will tend to be very confident of his masculinity and may see his own acts of rape as merely expressions of his masculinity, virility and dominance. Such an attacker will often use a high degree of force, though not necessarily in the early stage of the interaction. He may initially appear friendly and non-threatening, and put his intended victim at her ease. However, his demeanour will then change, and his true intentions become clear. Such a pattern may be typical of assaults now labelled as ‘date-rapes’. These are the types of offences which juries often have difficulty accepting, believing that to some extent the victim contributed to her own victimisation by agreeing to accompany an assailant. What jurors may well not realise is that this type of offender may well appear completely innocent and harmless on first meeting an intended victim. Following the rape this person may revert to his former image and appear affable and innocent’ when in the dock. Because this type of person probably does not fit society’s stereotype of a ‘typical’ rapist, he may well be acquitted. This type of rapist is less common than the power reassurance offender and his crimes will tend to be less fre­quent or regular.

A third type of rapist identified by the FBI is labelled anger-retaliatory. As the name implies, this type of offender commits rape as a way of expressing his own rage and hostility. He will typically have a great deal of anger and animosity towards women and uses rape as a way of express­ing this anger and as a way of degrading his victims. His typical pattern will be one of selfishness and he will tend to show very high levels of vio­lence. Because the attack is usually an emotional and impulsive outburst it will tend to be unplanned. This form of attack has been labelled a ‘blitz’ approach, with an immediate use of direct and heavy violence. The assault itself tends to be over fairly quickly; once the assailant feels he has released his pent-up anger both physically and sexually. Victims will tend to be in the same age range as the rapist and may be selected because they symbolise another person against whom the person has a grudge. For example, if a lower class young woman has rejected the man, he may choose a victim who appears to have similar characteris­tics. This type of rapist will tend to attack again when the anger and resentment build up to levels that he is unprepared to tolerate.

The final type of rapist has been labelled as anger-excitement. In this case pleasure and sexual excitement are produced for the assailant by the almost sadistic pleasure of seeing his victim’s suffering and fear. Such an attacker might thus inflict pain in order to achieve fear and, subse­quently, submission. Contrary to media images, these forms of attack are actually the least common type. Rapists falling into this category will usu­ally plan their attacks in a very clear and methodical way. They may even rehearse the assault and make sure that they have covered all eventuali­ties. They will decide in advance what weapons to use, what mode of transport to employ and they will already have items such as gags or ropes to hand. However, the actual victim may well not have been chosen in advance. She will typically be a stranger who meets the criteria for an attacker’s sexual fantasies and desires, but with whom he has not previ­ously come into contact. His sexual and verbal behaviour will be almost entirely selfish and he will tend to use an extreme amount of force, often resulting in the victim’s death. This type of attacker tends to restrain his victim physically and this is followed by long periods of control and sex­ual assault. Torture is not uncommon and the helplessness, degradation and humiliation of his victim appear to be stimulating to this type of offender. He may keep records of his conquests and in some cases may take photographs or make video recordings. The anger-excitement rapist is the least likely to attack at regular intervals, preferring to initiate an assault only when his planning is complete. For this reason it is often difficult to predict when this type of offender will strike again.

One can see from this classification system that it would be naïve to believe that there is only one type of rapist. The stereotype of the sexu­ally frustrated male, intent on degrading and harming his unfortunate victim, may be far too simplistic a view of rape. Clark and Morley (1988) offer an interesting insight into serial rapists. Their work is based on interviews with 41 rapists who had in total committed some 837 sexual assaults. One of the most important points to emerge is that serial rapists do not necessarily fit the stereotype that people may have of this type of offender. Perhaps surprisingly, many serial rapists appear perfectly normal to those around them. Far from being lonely, disadvantaged, socially unskilled characters, serial rapists typically come from an average or above average home background and are intelligent, well presented, in regular employment and living in a family context. Hazelwood and Warren (1989) suggest that serial rapists are more likely to have previous convictions for theft than for minor sexual offences.

What we can learn from the research reviewed here is that a careful examination of the actual circumstances of the offence may well reveal a great deal about the type of offender who committed a certain crime. By careful consideration, valuable clues can be gleaned as to the probable underlying motive for the attack, and, from this, the most likely ‘type’ of offender. Such consideration and attempts at classification will also help investigators to determine whether a series of offences appears to have been carried out by the same offender or by several. Classification may also assist the police to establish how likely it is that the person will strike again, and if so, when this is most likely to be. It might also be possible to predict whether the assailant’s next attack may be more violent and be likely to lead to the victim being killed.

The FBI’s analysis does provide some interesting information, and has undoubtedly helped to solve a number of infamous crimes. However, as was noted earlier, some academics have been critical of the FBI’s approach (for example Rossmo, 1996; Oleson, 1996; Canter 1994). Much of this criticism has stemmed from the fact that the FBI’s system is based on the analysis of a rather small number of cases and on interviews with only a small number of serial rapists and murderers. In addition, Canter believes that the FBI’s approach is fundamentally flawed because it lacks scientific rigour and is more akin to subjective intuition. Despite this, the FBI’s techniques have been influential and spread to other countries. Indeed, Jackson and Bekerian note that ‘many, if not all, of the psychological profiling units in other countries (such as Canada, the UK and the Netherlands) have been modelled to a large extent on the FBI approach’ (Jackson and Bekerian, 1997: 6).

Despite this influence, a somewhat different approach to profiling has been suggested by the British psychologist David Canter. Some of his ideas and theories will now be covered.

The FBI did not take up the idea until the 1970s, but there is now a Behavioural Science Unit within the FBI National Centre. The majority of profiles are related to murder, but profiling can also be used in rape, kidnapping cases, arson, burglary and obscene telephone calls.  The FBI now uses the term ‘criminal investigative analysis’ (CIA) or ‘crime scene analysis’.


The FBI specifies certain information before a profile can be made: colour photos of the crime scene, data about the neighbourhood of the crime (for example, the type of housing and average income of residents), the medical examiner’s report, a map of the victim’s travels prior to death, a com­plete investigative report of the incident, and back­ground details of the victim. The collection of this information is part of a systematic process following four stages:

1.                 Data assimilation — collection of all available information.

2.                 Crime classification — attempts to classify the crime

3.                 Crime reconstruction — attempts to reconstruct the crime and generate hypotheses about the behaviours involved.

  1.            Profile generation.


The US approach is based on the work of the FBI in response to serial murderers. The main source of their data is interviews with offenders in prison. The obvious characteristics of ‘serial killers’ are that they tended to be white, unmarried, male, in unskilled occupations, have a history of psychiatric problems and come from dysfunctional family backgrounds.


FBI investigators in 1979 interviewed 36 sexual murderers and were able to categorise them as either ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’.


Differences between organized and disorganized murders  


Organized murder scene


Victim — targeted stranger

Control including restraints,

Controlled talk

Aggression before death

Body hidden or moved from crime scene

Weapon and evidence absent

Disorganized scene


Victim — known by offender

Little control


Sexual acts before death

Body not hidden or left at crime scene.

Evidence present

Organized murderer

More-than-average lQ

Skilled occupation

Controlled mood

Living with partner

Mobile — for example, car

Socially competent

Sexually competent

High birth order status

Fathers work stable

Inconsistent discipline as child

Use of alcohol during crime

Follows crime on news

Limited change in behaviour after crime

Disorganized murderer

Less-than-average IQ



Living alone

Lives near crime

Socially incompetent

Sexually incompetent

Low birth order status


Harsh discipline as child

Alcohol not used during crime

Does not follow crime on news

Major behaviour change after crime

Source: FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 1985.


Ressler (Ressler et al, 1988) concluded that sex killers were predominantly white, unmarried males, unemployed or in low-skilled employment.  They tended to have alcohol problems or psychiatric problems, came from a dysfunctional family and were obsessed with voyeurism, fetishism and pornography.


Serial Killers


Rossmo (1997) has analysed the process of how serial killers find a victim into two phases:


The first phase is the ‘victim search method’, of which there are four possibilities.

1.                  Hunter — offenders who set out specifically to find a particular type of victim close to their own home. Canter and Larkin (1993) prefer the term ‘marauders’, and found that 87% of a group of British serial rapists lived within the ‘offence cir­cle’ (that is, their home was at the centre of their attacks).

2.                  Poacher (or ‘commuters’) — offenders who set out specifically to find a particular type of victim but away from their homes. The FBI noticed that 51% of a group of American serial rapists lived outside their offence circles’ (Reboussin et al, 1993).

3.                  Troller — this involves an opportunist encounter with a victim while doing something else.

4.                  Trapper — offenders who work in a particular job to allow them the opportunity to encounter vic­tims within their control. For example, Gerald Schaeffer, who may have killed as many as 34 women but was only convicted for two murders, was a police officer.


The second phase is the ‘victim attack method’, which can be sub-divided into three types:

1.                  Raptor — attacks victim on meeting.

2.                  Stalker — follows victim, then attacks him or her.

3.                  Ambusher — attacks only when victim is in situa­tion controlled by the offender, like the offender’s home.


The goals of profiling

According to Holmes & Holmes (1996) there are three major goals of profiling:


1.      Social and psychological assessments: the profile should contain basic information about the offender’s personality, age, race, type of employment (if any), religion, marital status and level of education. The personality aspects of the profile may help the police to predict possible future attacks.

2.      Psychological evaluation of belongings: once a main suspect has been identified, the profile should provide suggestions as to any possessions the offender may have that would associate him with the crime scene. These may include scene souvenirs, photos or items of pornography. Such physical evidence could be listed on a search warrant so the police take particular care to look for them.

3.      Interviewing suggestions and strategies: even when people have committed similar crimes, they do not respond to questioning in the same way because their motives are different. A good profile can provide the police with strategies that may be effective for a particular offender. An example cited by Holmes & Holmes (1996) was the murder of a young girl and her boyfriend in which the stepfather was the main suspect but there was no forensic evidence to tie him to it. When questioned in a conventional way, he denied any involvement. The profiler suggested that as he was a man who had a great need for control, it would be good tactics to appear to solicit his help in solving the crime. Under the guise of doing this, the suspect was surrounded by photographs of the crime scene and, believing himself in control of the investigation, became so engrossed in talking about the case that he revealed more and more his familiarity with the crime until he eventually broke down and confessed.


The obvious starting point of any investigation of a crime is the analysis of ‘hard’ evidence such as blood stains and fibre samples but behavioural information from the crime scene may offer additional information that aids the investigation. Such information may be g1eaned from various sources: in the case of rape of a woman by a man. For example, it may include how the perpetrator talked to his victim, how he treated her and whether or not he showed remorse. This behavioural information then provides insights into the thinking patterns and personal habits of the offender which may offer clues as to how they behave in their everyday life: their lifestyle, motivations, personal needs and past history. Offender profiles do not solve crimes, they simply provide a way of narrowing down the range of potential suspects by providing information about the possible personal characteristics of the perpetrator of the crime.


Canter (1994) criticises the technique used in the American approach.  He suggests that interviews with criminals are unreliable as the criminals can be manipulative and they are often disturbed sensation seekers.


Other criticisms of the FBI approach are:

  1. The samples of serious offenders interviewed in order to draw up the classification system were quite small
  2. The crime classifications for murderers and rapists were crude and not very helpful in terms of detection
  3. Details of the development and efficiency of the methods were not published


Boon and Davies (1992) sees the American approach as a ‘top down’ approach.  The crime under investigation is viewed in the light of the law enforcers’ previous experience of criminal behaviour.  The British approach (described next) is more ‘bottom up’ in its approach.  Seemingly insignificant clues to behaviour are built up to give a broad description of the main characteristics of the offender.



Canter’s profiling techniques


While Canter’s approach shares some similarities with that of the FBI, he has tried to place his approach within accepted psychological frame­works. Canter has labelled his approach Investigative Psychology and believes that as a branch of applied psychology, it goes beyond what is traditionally thought of as offender profiling. Canter has tried to under­stand firstly the type of crime in which any particular individual will be likely to become involved and also the way in which the crime will be car­ried out. Secondly, Canter has tried to understand the way in which an individual offender’s behaviour while committing a crime mirrors their behaviour in everyday life. His research has led him to believe that there are subsets of interrelated activities that occur when a crime is being committed (see below). He also believes that a criminal’s actions at the scene of a crime will reveal something about their background. Thus sys­tematic attempts to destroy evidence might suggest that the person has previous convictions.

From his research into offending behaviour Canter (1989, 1994) and his colleagues have identified five important characteristics that they believe can help in investigations. These are residential location, criminal biography, domestic/social characteristics, personal characteristics and occupa­tional/educational history. While all of these have been found to be of some value, residential location and criminal history are thought to be of most benefit (Boon and Davies, 1993).

Canter and Heritage (1990) analysed details of sexual assaults in an effort to identify particular styles and patterns within these offences. They were able to identify’ those characteristics which were very common in such assaults and those which were much less common and thus more distinc­tive. By carrying out such analyses it was hoped that common factors in similar types of sex crimes could be specified and the more individually distinctive features identified. Canter’s approach is based on the belief that although there are similarities in many sexual assault cases, there are also identifiable differences in the way in which offences are carried out.

Canter believes that during the commission of a crime, vital clues are left behind and the distinctive personality of the offender shows through in some way. Thus, it is thought that the way in which the crime is com­mitted is in part a reflection of the everyday traits and behaviour of the individual. The interaction between the offender and victim is thus stud­ied closely and categorised along a number of dimensions, e.g. sexuality, violence and aggression, impersonal sexual gratification, interpersonal intimacy and criminality. Canter believes that by this careful study of offence behaviour, patterns can be established and variations between offenders identified. However, unlike the FBI’s approach, Canter does not attempt to place offenders into rigid typologies, but rather suggests that their behaviour will mirror other aspects of their day-to-day life (Canter, 1995: 354).

In the statistical approach, the classification of crime scenes is empirically based, using statistical methods such as smallest space analysis. This is a method of identify­ing just how likely features of crime scenes are to exist and coexist with another feature at a particular crime scene. Take the following features of rapes:


Binding limbs

Clothing removed


Element of surprise Fellatio of the offender Gratuitous violence Humiliation



Multiple violence

Offender confident Reassures victim

Sex language - victim Sodomy

Takes time

Theft of money

Theft of personal belongings Torture

Use of blindfold

Vaginal penetration Verbal aggression


Some of these features are very common in rape (e.g. vaginal penetration is prac­tically universal in rapes of women) whereas others are quite rare (e.g. cunnilingus). Some of the behaviours frequently occur together if they occur in a rape; other behaviours are rarely found together. House (1997) analysed the co-occurrence and frequency of these behaviours in rapes. The statistical analysis produced a pattern shown stylistically in Figure 13.4. This gives a visual representation of a smallest space analysis of data on the above and other characteristics of rape crime scenes. Vaginal penetration, the element of surprise and clothing removed are central in the diagram - this indicates that they are very common features of rape. As such they are not very useful for differentiating between different types of rape crime scene:

·        Characteristics at the extremities of the diagram such as the rapist apologises are relatively rare in rapes.

·        Characteristics that are close together occur together relatively often, such as theft of the victim's money and theft of the victim's personal property.

·        Theft of. the victim's money and sodomy rarely occur together. This is shown by the dis­tance between them.

Also notice that labels have been given to the characteristics in the four different quarters of the diagram - sadism, aggression, intimacy and criminality - which seem to reflect the major integrative themes underlying the pattern of associations among characteristics. This is as if there are several major themes in rape - a variety of scripts for carrying out rape.

One practical implication of House's work is his finding that the type of rape is associated with the offender's past criminal history:

. The sadistic group were less likely to have an arrest and conviction history; the criminality group were the most likely to have been imprisoned (they are committing other types of crime alongside the rape, after all, as can be seen from Figure 13.4).

. The sadism and intimacy groups tended to be low on convictions for property crime; the sadistic group were the least likely to have convictions for violence.

. The sadism and intimacy groups were the most likely to have convictions for deception.

One potential application of this is that it might help prioritise searches of offender databases in the hunt for possible suspects for a rape attack. If rapists commonly have a criminal record and these records contain good quality information, then there may be something to be gained from searching the criminal records. This would merely help manage routine police work of interviewing, record keeping and so forth more effectively. It could never in itself prove that a particular individual is the rapist - unless, of course, there is a record of his DNA that matches the new crime scene sample.

While this is interesting and does point to some characteristics of the offender, it is desirable to extend this sort of analysis to include indications of the relationship between the major crime scene 'scripts' and the psychological and other character­istics of the offender. Salfati and Canter (1998) examined the relationship between murder crime scenes and the murderer's characteristics. They used methods much like those described by House (1997). A major hypothesis was that the murderers would show similar modes of interaction during the homicide as in much of the rest of their lives.

A sample of 82 British homicides in which a single offender attacked a stranger was studied. These were murders in which the police did not know the assailant at the time of the discovery of the crime. Although these are described as stranger murders, this is something of a misnomer. Seventy-four per cent of the offenders knew the victim at least slightly. Information about the crimes was drawn from police records. Some 48 variables were extracted from these records. Broadly speaking, they fell into the following categories:

There were a number of informative features of the crimes:

. The victims averaged 45 years of age with a range of 1 to 70 years.

. Offenders were much younger with an average age of 27 years and a range of 15 to 49 years.

. Mostly the offenders were male (72%) and the victims female (55%).

. Mostly the victims were left at the place of death (76%).

. Mostly the homicide had taken place in the evening (66%).

. Nearly half of victims were found in their own home (44%).

. Few (12%) involved sexual elements.

. The majority of offenders (79%) were local or familiar with the area in which the crime occurred.

. Unemployment was common in offenders (41 %).

. About half of offenders were married or cohabiting (48%).

. A further 23 % had previously been married.

. 12% of offenders had served in the armed forces.

. Imprisonment was common in the histories of offenders (40%) with the com­monest previous offences being theft (22 %), burglary (18 %) and violence against people (15%).

Using smallest space analysis (see table below), the researchers found three major groups of crime. These were classified as instrumental opportunistic, instrumental cognitive and expressive impulsive. Two thirds of the homicides could be classified fairly readily into one of the three categories. Very approximately, a third of the classifiable crimes fell into each of the three. Each of the themes had different typical offender charac­teristics. The table below gives the major crime scene characteristics and the associated offender characteristics. This is impressive but with one caveat - just how well can offender characteristics be predicted from the crime scene? Just how useful is the analysis in police work? What does it tell the police about where to search for the offender? How effective will this search be?


Face hidden

Previous offences for theft



Previous offences for burglary


Partially undressed

Previous vehicle theft offences


Manual attack

Having previously come to police notice


Neck attacked



Female victims

Familiar with the area of the crime


Old victims

Knew victim


Multiple wounds in one area



Premises of the victim


 Instrumental cognitive

Body transported

Served in the armed services


Body hidden

Served a prison sentence


Body carefully placed



Blunt instrument



Face up


 Expressive impulsive


Previous violent offences


Single wound

Previous offences for public disorder


Weapon taken to scene and

Previous offences for damage to property


also removed

Previous sexual offences


Limbs attacked

Previous traffic offences


Torso attacked

Previous drugs offences


Multiple wounds all over body

Married at the time of the offence



Previous marriage



Female offender


Mostly these questions cannot be answered at the present time. Most statistical profiling remains research-based with no direct input into the conduct of police invest­igations. So, in that sense, it is not known if such profiling could enhance police work. The potential is there. Actual success may be an issue for the future. Statistical profiling does recognise better than FBI profiling that relationships are only probabilities and not certainties. Thus an instrumental cognitive crime scene merely indicates that the offender has an enhanced probability of having served in the armed forces.



Criminal Profiling: How it got started and how it is used
 by Wayne Petherick