Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Profiling and Geography

In the practice of profiling, many things are taken into consideration, including the victim's background, the time and place of the crime, the method of abduction, the type of weapon used, and any evidence of overkill.

"I use a formula," says John Douglas, "How plus Why equals Who. If we can answer the hows and whys in a crime, we generally can come up with the solution."

Probing for an assessment prior to actually questioning a suspect involves looking at such data as the following:

  • the weapon used
  • the killing site (and dump site, if different)
  • he position of the body and whether it was moved
  • the type of wounds inflicted
  • minute details about the victim
  • offender risk factors
  • method of controlling the victim
  • evidence of staging or signature

The basic idea is to get a body of data yielding common patterns so that one can give a general description of an UNSUB (unknown suspect) in terms of personal habits, possible employment, marital status and personality traits. Contrary to popular belief, it's not necessary that the offender be a serial criminal. Profiling can be done from a single crime scene, and since 70-75% of murders are situational, developing a way to profile without reference to repeated patterns is useful.

A good psychological profile is an educated attempt to provide parameters about the type of person who committed a certain crime, based on the idea that people tend to be slaves to their psychology and will inevitably leave clues. The kinds of information sought include:

  • the offender's gender
  • the MO
  • any evidence of an organized or disorganized personality
  • geographic stability vs. transience
  • evidence of being impulsive or compulsive
  • the type of "personation" or signature at the scene
  • the type of fantasy that seems to be involved
  • evidence of ritual
  • whether a "trophy" was taken

A profile is most easily developed if the offender displays some evidence of psychopathology, such as sadistic torture, postmortem mutilation, or pedophilia. Some killers leave a "signature" a behavioral manifestation of a personality quirk, such as staging the corpse for the most humiliating exposure or tying ligatures with a complicated bow. This helps to link crime scenes and alert law enforcement officers to the presence of a serial rapist or killer. If a pattern is detected, it may also help to predict future possible attacks or the most probable encounter sites. According to Douglas, the "signature," or behavior done for emotional satisfaction, is key: "I've found that signature is a more reliable guide to the behavior of serial offenders than an MO. That's because the MO evolves, while the emotional reasoning that triggers the signature doesn't."

The best profilers have gained their knowledge from encounters with criminals and have developed an intuitive sense about certain types of crime. While some people criticize the inferential nature of profiling, it's generally based on extensive experience, and the base of information derives from both physical and nonphysical evidence. Generally, profilers employ psychological theories that provide ways to analyze mental deficiency or criminal thought patterns. They also use actuarial data such as the age range into which offenders generally fall and how important an unstable family history is to criminality.

Profiling is not just a personality assessment of the UNSUB, but includes other types of data. Noting an UNSUB's age, race, sex, occupation, educational level, social support system, type of employment, and other sociological factors are just as important as evidence of a character disorder. Added to that is the significance of the type of place a killer chooses as a body dump site, such as Ted Bundy's preference for the heavily wooded mountains outside Seattle. That's where a wholly different type of analysis comes in.

A relatively recent development in the profiling concept is the emphasis on a suspect's geographic patterns: where a victim is selected, where the crime was actually committed, the travel route used for the body disposal, where and how the bodies are dumped, and the relative isolation of the dumpsite. All of this information tells something about the suspect's mobility, method of transportation, potential area of residence, and ability to traverse barriers (such as crossing state lines or going over a bridge). Some professionals view geographic profiling as a subspeciality of the FBI's general program, while others see it as an entirely different approach. Nevertheless, the sort of profile that results from either method offers similar information approximate age, employment, evidence of psychosis, and probable living conditions of the UNSUB.

Familiarity is part of one's comfort zone and many murderers begin a crime spree in areas where they live, and with victims with whom they feel relatively safe.

One killer in the Midwest who was believed to have murdered at least eight young women turned out to have lived very close to where he had abducted them. He even worked with one of them. In his case, there were many geographic similarities among his crimes. Six of the bodies were found in rural areas and five of the body dumpsites formed a tight circle with a few miles radius. This indicated that the UNSUB traveled this way back and forth, had a car, and knew the area well. Two girls were actually killed in the same place and transported to different locations, but it was clear that the killer wanted to stick to a familiar landscape.

Elizabeth Short mugshot
Elizabeth Short mugshot

Geo-forensics of this type is applicable even to single cases in terms of learning things about a perpetrator, because any dumpsite tells a story. In the famous 1947 case of the Black Dahlia in Los Angeles, this young woman's naked body, severed in two and drained of blood, was left in an abandoned lot of a residential area just steps from the sidewalk, placed there in the early morning hours after the dew had settled. That indicated a bold or deranged killer because he could easily have been seen. When her personal effects were found, it was easy to trace his route of exit and to take a guess as to where she may have been killed. Someone also noted that she had been left in the one place in Los Angeles that appeared on a map in the shape of female genitalia. That would affirm that this was an organized killing by a sadistic misogynist.

The crime sites that are most valuable for this kind of analysis are those in which the killer has exercised spatial intentionality predatory acts and body disposal planning that seem to have a relationship. In a localized rampage, one can tell nearly as much from the paths connecting the sites involved in the offense as by the sites themselves. When a killer travels, such as in the recent string of murders along railroads, much can be learned from the types of places in which the perpetrator chooses to kill and people can be alerted.

Yet how does geographic profiling actually differ from psychological profiling? The idea is that one starts with the crime scene and works "backwards."