Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Criminal Profiling: Part 1 History and Method

Still in the Game

Psychologists, too, may become profilers, but for them the field is more entrepreneurial. They dont get hired to do it full-time. They have to go looking for opportunities. Typically, someone interested in going into forensics will get a degree in clinical psychology, and then do an internship in a prison or forensic hospital (or some other forensic setting). While programs have been developed to offer Ph.D.s in forensic psychology, they are still strongly based in clinical perspectives, with courses in abnormal psychology and personality assessment. Students of forensic psychology who seek to become profilers may work with victims of abuse, juvenile delinquents, or adult criminals, developing experience with the legal system and contacts among law enforcement agencies.

Once they have achieved a relationship of trust, they may then be called upon for consultation with crimes or at crime scenes. An equivocal death analysis is one possibility, wherein psychologists may offer insights about a victims state of mind to help interpret otherwise ambiguous information. Actual profiling is another. The more visibility a psychological consultant gets, and the more success he or she has, the more that persons reputation will be enhanced and the more likely it is that police agencies may call for assistance. Robert Ressler works with psychologists toward that end in his post-retirement consulting business. Gregg McCrary also likes to bring psychologists together with law enforcement for mutual benefit.

Whether people enter the field via law enforcement or psychological consulting, they must still learn the ropes. They need to know the process of investigation and the methods used to determine if a death is a suicide, accident or homicide. They need to understand the nuances of staging a crime, and the way the mind of a psychopath works. They must also recognize that sometimes there are false allegations. They need to know how to interview different types of people, from victims families to rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. They need to understand that law enforcement relies on its own vocabulary and not psychological jargon, and they need to know about evidence collection and courtroom protocol.

Besides learning about psychology, they must also learn the logic of crime scene analysis and the job of the medical examiner in determining the cause and manner of someones death. They must forget what the media or the movies say about the function of a profiler, and they must refrain from trying to become a detective. Above all, they need to know how to work with a team of investigators with a common goal.

When the work becomes stressful, as it can in any area of clinical psychology, practitioners need to know when to get help, and its usually a good idea to do as the FBI does---have stress support available. Looking at crime scenes and autopsy photos can be daunting at times, and the constant awareness of what people do to one another can be bruising, even to professionals who see it all the time. 

Academic psychologists can also provide research support in this area, and the FBI has hired them to become part of the NCAVCs programs. Even outside the FBI, psychologists who believe that behavioral profiling should have a more scientific foundation and a standard methodology have attempted to design studies that will prove something through statistical analysis. For example, both a study in 1990 and one in 2000 pitted trained profilers against other groups to determine if they fared better on sample cases. The first study indicated that they did not, but the subject pool was too small to be significant in any respect. The second study showed that profilers do have an edge in this method, although there was great variability among them in the results. In other words, some profilers are outstanding while others, even with training, are no better than the average person.

Even so, to date, no study has actually proven anything one way or the other. It remains for future researchers to either provide the program with a solid scientific basis or to allow it to be what the early practitioners said it was: an art, based in experience, that can be helpful when used in the correct context.

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