Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Derrick Todd Lee, Baton Rouge Serial Killer

The Profile Evaluated - Part Three

Why do we have such misunderstandings about profiling?  Why do we believe it solves cases and should be the primary tool in an investigation?

Part of the reason is that in cases that provoke fear, we seek certainty.  Thanks to movies like Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, as well as the television show Profiler, the psychological approach has gained a reputation as a precise method for catching cunning and elusive killers.  The profiler is something of a larger-than-life hero.  However, those who devise profiles for law enforcement are quick to say that it is based on probability and does not alone solve cases.  In other words, while a profile can help, its purpose should be kept in perspective.

Gregg McCrary
Gregg McCrary

"We're painting an impressionist portrait," says McCrary, "not developing a detailed photograph. You hope you'll be more right than wrong, but no one claims that a profile will be one hundred percent certain.  And sometimes you feel more strongly about one part than another, such as age or race.  It all depends on the available evidence."

Also, when criminal cases go national, certain people jump in who have no real credentials but they exude an air of authority and confidence.  They play the part of the movie profilers.  The media often does not check them out but instead puts them on television, and then when they get it wrong, that looks bad for those who do have credentials.  Early during the Beltway sniper case, when there was very little behavioral evidence, some of these "profilers" were talking as if they knew exactly what kind of person this was and what he was doing next, when they had nothing on which to base their claims.  They were speculating, but the media turned those speculations into "profiles."  Then at the end of the case, when "the shooter" turned out (allegedly) to be two black men, there were endless criticisms of profiling.

If the media wants good profiling, they must wait for a certain amount of behavioral evidence to be present and they must check the credentials of those they choose to put on TV as a spokesperson for this method.  There is no quick, easy solution for solving complex cases, and we should keep in mind that a profile is meant for the investigators, not reporters, and only they can decide if it's valuable to the case.


Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. has published twenty books. She holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. For more information see her biography.