No profile has ever caught a killer. The entertainment industry can disregard this fact; law enforcement agencies cannot. The disclaimers that once accompanied profiles and crime analyses are vanishing, replaced with an occasional acknowledgment that a report is based on probability. Juries may be instructed to decide what weight to assign this opinion testimony. Police officers are instructed in investigative protocols based on likelihood. Theories of a crime evolve and dictate investigative direction before the evidence is examined.
In 1957, the first modern criminal profiler in the United States developed a profile of George Metesky, New York City’s Mad Bomber. Psychiatrist James Brussell described the bomber’s personality, his habits and quirks, and included opinions about his living arrangements, physical stature, and taste in clothing. When police arrested Metesky at his home, they declared Brussell’s work uncanny. Metesky was even wearing the double-breasted suit (jacket buttoned) Brussell predicted. The media referred to Brussel as “the Sherlock Holmes of the couch,” and “a psychiatric seer.”
Brussel dismissed the accolades. He said his work was a blend of “science, intuition, and hope.” He was also the first to warn that what some called the magic of working backward from a crime scene to describe offender characteristics was no substitute for a thorough criminal investigation based on hard evidence.
In the 1970s, FBI agents at Quantico’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) began applying and refining the techniques that Brussell had pioneered. The first FBI profilers identified the now familiar general descriptors of offender characteristics: organized, disorganized, and mixed type (the spree type came later). What had been an informal effort was formalized later in the decade as requests for assistance from law enforcement agencies throughout the country increased.
In 1984, the FBI established the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) within the BSU. Originally designed to deal with the increasing number of repeat killers, NCAVC housed the computerized Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), and Investigative Support Services.
Publicity about the NCAVC spawned an entertainment sub-genre based on “mind hunters,” profilers with near psychic abilities who view the world as a killer does. Supported by cutting edge technology, these crime seers cut through the detritus of a plodding investigation and led detectives to the killer’s door. From James Brussel, to John Douglas, to Thomas Harris — the most infamous serial killer is no longer Ted Bundy, it is Hannibal Lecter.
One result of the fiction-driven profiler-as-supercop phenomenon is heightened expectation. The public and, to some extent, the police, expect the crime guru to duck under the yellow tape, undergo a mental metamorphosis, and gag out the perp’s name, address, and phone number. Some profilers, enamored of their Hollywood image, do little to dampen these expectations. These, of course, are the go-to experts whose names and numbers inhabit the Rolodex of every cable-news talking head.
The scientizers are those who seek to label, quantify, and punch data into a PC. Whether they dart about in university laboratories, or linger after midnight at the psychology library, they have the slouch and vague stare of the true believer close on the heels of a unifying principle of violent behavior. What they do, they claim, is scientific, but do they know what that means? To qualify as a science, a body of knowledge must lend itself to systematic arrangement and exhibit the operation of general laws. While there are some generalizations that tend to apply from one set of killings to another, most are worthless as anything more than a referent by which to gauge new behavior samples. Cluttering your professional papers with graphs and footnotes does not make you a scientist.
In recent years, geographical profiling has entered the sleuthing lexicon. Practitioners of this slick, computerized field are fine-tuning their software, and educating the public in their new jargon. The more “samples” (e.g., abduction points, crime scenes, body locations) available to the geographical profiler, they say, the more readily they can wind their way to a killer’s home base.
At a minimum, the above approaches require a killer to meet the accepted definition of a serial killer: three kills separated temporally by “cooling off periods.” This requires, of course, that law enforcement agencies overcome their inclination toward linkage blindness, and recognize patterns of behavior across jurisdictions.
If profiles do not catch killers, what good are they? A profile generated from the facts of a crime can narrow the focus of an investigation. In the academic arena, the sayings (after translation) and doings of someone like Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, or Antone Costa are informative, but they have little to offer an assessment of tomorrow’s crime scene. Likewise, probabilities generated from historical data do little more than clutter the mind. That 75% of incarcerated serial killers claim to have been abused as children is about as meaningless a statistic as 99% of all heroin addicts having been breast-fed as infants. The evidence remaining at a crime scene, the victim’s background and habits, and an initial crime reconstruction are among the elements that allow a profiler to offer police investigative suggestions.
Humans leave physical and psychological traces of themselves wherever they go. A single predatory act committed by one stranger against another at a single location typically offers enough information to reconstruct the crime event, to identify some characteristics of the assailant, and to suggest avenues of investigation.