Discuss the effectiveness of Offender Profiling

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When psychologists use the term Offender Profiling, they are referring to the use of both the Geographical Approach and the Typology Approach in identifying the personality and behavioural characteristics of an offender based on the analysis of the crimes that they have committed.

The Typology Approach was created by the FBI and is based on whether the crime scene itself can be classified as organised or disorganised. This classification can be made by identifying whether there is evidence of the crime being planned beforehand. The FBI interviewed serial killers throughout the 1970’s and discovered that criminals themselves can be classified into two different categories- organised and disorganised through the classification of the crime scene. By identifying whether a crime scene is either organised or disorganised, this can then lead to the building of an offender profile of the perpetrator. This profile is based on traits and characteristics that are assumed to be that of an organised or disorganised offender.

The Geographical Approach involves linking the location of the crime scenes to the likely home or base of the offender. This approach was created by Rossmo and it is assumed that the offender is more likely to operate in areas that they know well, such as home, work or childhood areas. The crime range of an offender that is suggested by Rossmo is a two mile radius, Canter and Gregory differentiated between two types of offenders, a Marauder, where the offender lives close to the crime scene and a Commuter where the offender has to travel to get to the crime scene. They are still familiar with the place, for example they lived there when they were younger or they work in the area. The idea of a mental map can be applied to this Geographical Approach based on the assumption that an offender has a mental map, which is an internal representation of the world we live in, especially areas we are familiar with. They are not based on reality, but an individual’s interpretation of the area or their opinion of it. If an offender has a mental map of an area, a profiler can start to look at distribution of linked offender and see if aspects reflect the offender’s mental map.

In order to see whether Offender Profiling is ‘a waste of time’ or not, we need to observe if Offender Profiling contributes to the capture of criminals and whether the police rate these methods as a useful way of investigating into offending.

A strength of Offender Profiling is that the Geographical Approach is scientific as it gets into the mental map of the criminal and is founded on psychological theory on how information is represented, which deserves credibility. The use of Criminal Geographic targeting, a computer system used in the approach, and a Jeopardy Surface which is a 3D model produced using spatial data, relating to movement, distance and crime to a from a crime scene, all makes this Approach more scientifically valued. Lundrigan and Canter believe that all offender’s spatial making decisions are influenced by social, cognitive and economic factors. The study they conducted on 120 murderers to analyse the distance between homes and body disposal sites found that the disposal site tended to be in a different directions to the previous disposal site, with the home at the centre.

However, it was Ainsworth that discovered that there is inconsistency in terms of Offender Profiling being used in the UK due to the debate between Canter and Britton about which approach is best. This means that Offender Profiling is highly regarded in the US compared to that of Britain.

It is known that the FBI in America use the Typology Approach consistently but there are many strengths and weaknesses to both approaches individually. It has already been established that the Geographical Approach is so much more scientific than that of the Typology, where there is no scientific evidence to back up the classifications are always true from the FBI and it can’t be applied to all offenders as there is no middle ground. Many have complained over this factor, such as Douglas who suggested that there is a third category of ‘mixed’ between both an organised and disorganised offender and even Holmes and De Burger, who proposed that 6 types of offenders could be defined according to a combination of 14 characteristics.

The Typology Approach is also subjective because people can interpret the crime scene differently and the FBI officers may have held biased views when interviewing murders due to the crimes they have committed. It was also found by Goodwill and Alison, through the analysis of 215 house burglaries, that geographical information was more useful, such as the timing of the offence and position of the crime. The Geographical Approach can also be used by profilers to analyse the happening of many different types of crime. Nevertheless, despite geographical information being important, the location of the crimes is not enough to enable a base to be inferred, there needs to be an understanding of the offenders behaviour at the scene and that of the victims, also the Geographical Approach requiring several crime scenes are needed for it to be effective. 

The Geographical Approach can be seen as adequate in catching criminals as it led to the successful capture of the Railway Rapist, John Duffy. David Canter was invited by the Metropolitan Police to study the location of the crimes, laying transparent sheets with the scene marked on, which helped pin down where the attacker may live due to suggestions that the killer was a marauder. Along with combining this with the Typology Approach to build a profile of the personality, traits and habits of the offender, the police observed that Duffy fit very well with this profile and was convicted with 2 murders and 5 rapes, demonstrating how both approaches can be successfully used and that we should continue with it.  

On the other hand, one issue with case studies is that they are only just one case. On the whole the approaches don’t really contribute that much to catching criminals. Pinizotto found that in 192 cases in which profiles were used, the profile contributed to the identification of the suspect in only 15 of the cases solved, suggesting that Offender Profiling isn’t effective the majority of the time.

Pinizotto and Finkel found that trained experts such as FBI and trained police officers were better at producing more accurate profiles for particular offences such as sex offences than groups with less experience, for example clinical psychologists and students. The participants were asked to construct profiles of real cases and then asked to describe the offender, with one crime being a murder case, the other a sex offence. However it was found that the experts weren’t significantly better than the other groups for identifying other types of criminals, such as murders. Campbell also stated that ‘there is no clear evidence that psychologists are any better than bartenders at diagnosing criminals,’ suggesting that practically anyone could identify a murderer.

Alison’s study found that the police could produce accurate descriptions of the offenders due to their training even when the profile had contradictory information within it due to the ambiguous statements that were presented, contributing to opinions that Offender Profiling can be helpful. On the other hand Bartol found that out of 152 surveys of police officers and discovered how 70% of them weren’t completely convinced of the validity of the Offender Profiling approaches, thus suggesting that even professionals don’t know whether Offender Profiling is useful.

To conclude, on the whole Offender Profiling can be extremely useful in solving some cases where detectives and police officers have come to a dead end in their investigation, such as that of the Railway Rapist however most of the time the approaches are actually found to not be that useful or the detectives solve the case via other means and alternatives. It can be agreed that the majority of the time, Offender Profiling doesn’t get the professional anywhere however if it does contribute even the slightest to the capture of criminals and speeds up the process, then what can be the harm in using it as part of the investigation, even if it is just a last resort.

Suzanne W. A Level Psychology tutor, GCSE Psychology tutor

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is an online A Level Psychology tutor with MyTutor studying at Durham University

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