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Does Criminal Profiling Work or is it Unjustified The Case of Tim Masters
Criminal profiling allows law enforcement to develop their understanding of particular types of crime, criminals, criminal behaviors, and crime-ridden areas. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program is one data set tool used in criminal profiling (FBI, 2019). However, criminal profiling is not an exact science but rather more of an art and there is a high degree of subjectivity that goes into creating a criminal profile. Thus, when it comes to the criminal profiling of serial killers, there are many factors that must be considered—biological, sociological, environmental, criminological, and psychological inputs. This paper will describe what is involved in the criminal profiling of serial killers, how the process works, who conducts it, what traits of serial killers profiles tend to focus on, and how effective the process is at helping law enforcement agents catch killers. It will ultimately show that while criminal profiling of serial killers has enjoyed some success in the past, it is far from being the end-all-be-all facilitator of serial killer investigations. Far more helpful in fact is traditional police and detective work, such as interviewing witnesses, collecting forensic evidence at the scene of the crime, and getting police into the community to help raise awareness about what is going on.
The Process of Criminal Profiling
The primary task of profiling serial killers falls to the FBI's Behavioral Unit and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) (Van Aken, 2015). Although profiling assists investigators, it is not 100% a reliable source, and is understood more as an investigatory tool than as a prosecutorial tool (Van Aken, 2015). The FBI’s NVAVC has definitions and typographies that can be used to assist law enforcement investigations in the identification of or search for serial killers in cases where serial killing is suspected. The term serial killer stems from the Son of Sam killings in the 1970s when the phrase serial murderer was used to characterize and label the individual behind the string of murders (Miller, 2014). However, since the introduction of the term, the exact parameters of inclusion in this category have been argued. Because of the alternative phrase “mass murderer” and the overlapping nature of the two categories, including time spans and number of victims, there has been no precise definition of serial killer.
The process of criminal profiling of serial killers begins with establishing what type of individual is most likely to engage in this kind of act. Based upon the data collected on crime reports from the various crime databases like the UCR, the typical demographic for serial killers is white, middle-aged and male (Miller, 2014). Another data source used by profilers is the theoretical framework used by various researchers in the social-psychology field. Biology, society, and psychology are often studied to help researchers better understand what goes into making a serial killer, and case studies like those of Ted Bundy help researchers identify patterns and behaviors that are common among serial killers (Samuel & Widiger, 2007). To develop a full-spectrum analysis, profilers must know the history of serial killings, which indeed goes back as far as the 1400s.
From Gilles de Rais of the 15th century in France, to Jack the Ripper in 19th century England, the West has no lack of cases to study. Sexual deviance, necrophilia, violent mood swings, isolation, and social dysfunction have generally stood out as cues of abnormal mental behaviors associated with serial killers. It was not until the mid-20th century, however, that criminal profiling of the Mad Bomber in New York City led law enforcement to the arrest of the suspect (Van Aken, 2015). One of the differences that was eventually determined to be a differentiating factor between serial killers and spree killers was that serial killers were assessed to compulsively motivated—unable to stop their obsessions—while spree killers operated out a desire to exact revenge on society (Warf & Waddell, 2002).
Another thing that researchers do agree upon is that serial killers tend to have some form of personality disorder and must kill more than one person at various times; i.e., there should be some amount of time that passes between killings (Van Aken, 2015). Aside from this broad definition, there are typographies of serial killers that have developed over time. These typographies include: the control type, the predator type, the hedonistic type, the visionary type and the mission-focused type (Dogra et al., 2012). The control type is one who is motivated by a compulsion to exert power and control over his victims. Ted Bundy would be an example of a control type. The predator type describes a serial killer who enjoys hunting his victims as though for sport. The hedonistic type derives some pleasure or satisfaction, often sexual, from the act of killing. The visionary type refers to the killer who is motivated by voices in his head. And the mission-focused type is one who believes he is on a mission of good by ridding the world of evil people, such as prostitutes. Jack the Ripper would be an example of the mission-focused type. In many cases, there is overlap among typologies. The FBI further has stated that serial killers tend to fall into one of two categories when it comes to their approach to killing: either they are “organized, methodical, careful, and purposeful—or disorganized, erratic and usually suffering from mental illness” (Van Aken, 2015, p. 132).
Typologies are not enough to completely identify a serial killer, however, and the FBI also looks at relationships between killer and victim (if one exists) to better understand the possible identity of the killer. Environment, time of day, and characteristics of the victim are also helpful clues in criminal profiling. Moreover, the history of the suspect is also something that psychologists look at when constructing a profile. For instance, many serial killers often have disturbed childhoods (as was the case with Dahmer, Bundy, and others); or…
…Effect, so-called because of the popular misconception that the larger public has regarding the power of crime scene investigations, has had a negative impact on criminal justice proceedings. For instance, Alldredge (2015) points out that the CSI Effect unfortunately has led to jurors in courtroom trials having unrealistic expectations about the strength of forensic evidence.
The fact of the matter is that every type of evidence or profile can be abused and used to manipulate the facts of a case. Prosecutors, judges, jurors, investigators, law enforcement officers—all of them are prone to mistakes or even to indulging malicious intent. This does not mean, however, that criminal profiling is unhelpful. The CSI Effect may be a real phenomenon but it is up to attorneys in a trial to make sure that juries understand the strength of evidence.
The Merits of Criminal Profiling of Serial Killers
The merits of criminal profiling of serial killers can be seen over time—not necessarily all at once. For instance, in the early stages of profiling it is harder to understand the typography of the suspect. As time goes on, it becomes more apparent what sort of individual investigators are dealing with. It helps immensely for profilers to have a background in psychology and behavioral health as these types of backgrounds provide great insight into how individuals with mental disorders or with personality disorders behave (Dogra et al., 2012). The more information and perspective that profilers can bring to the practice, the more useful a criminal profile of a serial killer can be. The profile created by Brussel, for instance, immediately helped lead police to the suspect. The profile created for Bundy enjoyed less immediate success but nonetheless did help police catch the killer in the end.
Criminal profiling is essentially the culmination of police and investigatory work. It is the culmination of the information collected from crime reports and indexed in databases like the UCR. It is the expression of knowledge that professionals in the criminal justice field have in understanding motives for crime, the type of individuals who engage in specific types of crime, how victims relate to the offenders, and so on. There is a pattern to crime that can be seen throughout the decades and decades of data and this is what enables criminal profiling to have utilty in today’s world.
Though criminal profiling can be said to be more an art than a science, it nonetheless is a helpful tool that investigators and law enforcement officers can rely upon to help apprehend suspected serial killers. The tool has been used in the past to catch killers like Mad Bomber—and in spite of what critics of profiling suggest the fact is that these profiles can assist police in narrowing a search, especially if the killings are confined to a certain region or community. However, this does not mean criminal profiling cannot be used erroneously to prosecute and convict innocent persons. The case of Tim Masters shows that…
Alldredge, J. (2015). The" CSI Effect" and Its Potential Impact on Juror Decisions. Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 3(1), 6.
Bonn, S. (2019). How the FBI Profiles Serial Offenders. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201905/how-the-fbi-profiles-serial-offenders
Dogra, T.D. et al. (2012). A psychological profile of a serial killer: A case report. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 65(4), 299-316.
FBI. (2019). Summary of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Retrieved from https://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2009/aboutucr.html
Karson, M. (2017). Why Profiling Serial Killers Can’t Work. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-our-way/201711/why-profiling-serial-killers-can-t-work
Miller, L. (2014). Serial killers: I. Subtypes, patterns and motives. Aggression and Violent Behavior 19, 1-11.
Samuel, D. B., & Widiger, T. A. (2007). Describing Ted Bundy's personality and working towards DSM-V. Practice, 27, 20-22.
Sarteschi, C. M. (2016). Serial Murder. In Mass and Serial Murder in America (pp. 45-67). Springer, Cham.
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