If you are a big fan of the TV show Criminal Minds, you would know that the characters are adept at “profiling” the unsub, or unknown subject, who is a suspect in a crime.
Criminal profiling is a high-profile investigative method. People are amazed by it and watch TV news stories about it such as Bodies of Evidence. There are TV detective dramas such as CSI or Criminal Minds built around it. Criminal profiling uses evidence from a crime scene along with other psychological information to indicate the type of person most likely to have committed the criminal act being investigated.
What is the difference between television drama and real-life criminal profiling?
Television drama profiling
As portrayed in media, film, and television, detectives are policemen who work on hunches, while “profilers” are cops whose hunches are elevated to a higher echelon by a conglomerate of geeky science and psychic know how. They show up at a crime scene, put on the rubber gloves, look over pieces of evidence, survey the entire scene, make faces and then blurt out, “the perpetrator is a black guy, in his early 30’s, with black hair, brown eyes, and eats pizza regularly. Let’s catch this guy.”
Many times on television, the “who-done-it” mystery is solved about ten minutes prior to the end of the show just like you see on CSI
In contrast to television drama profiling, real-life criminal profiling involves painstaking detective work. It always begins with an analysis of the physical evidence found at individual crime scenes. By using deductive reasoning, the reasoning involved in using specific physical facts to arrive at generalizations, the criminal profiler starts to develop the tendencies and typologies that are characteristic of different kinds of perpetrators.
It is only after careful study of many crime scenes that the veteran criminal profiler can confidently try to rebuild the offender’s behavior at a particular scene. From this reconstruction can the profilers arrive at conclusions regarding the motive for the crime.
No respectable criminal profiler continues to believe in the age-old definition of method of operation (M.O.) that a particular type of criminal act is always and unavoidably the result of the same motive. On the flipside, it can be assumed that a number of motives can result in a particular kind of behavior. Suppose a crime scene investigator comes across a body with its eyes blindfolded. This could indicate that the offender may have known the victim and did not want to be identified.
Many times, criminal profiling can result in the narrowing of a broad list of suspects. Although this is not an exact science, it is an invaluable tool because it permits police agencies to focus more effectively their limited resources. For instance, if the offender is most likely to possess qualities A, B, and C, profilers do not have to look for perpetrators who possess characteristics outside of these qualities.
The next time you watch CSI or Criminal Minds, you will have a better understanding of what real-life criminal profiling is all about versus television drama profiling.