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Offender Profiling as an Investigative Tool in Criminology

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Dowden, Bennell & Bloomfield believe that offender profiling is a process by which an offender’s behavioural, socio-demographic and personality characteristics are predicted on the basis of crime scene evidence. Baker & Napier also suggested the purpose of offender profiling as investigative method used by FBI “…is to supply offender characteristics to help investigators narrow the field of suspects based on the characteristics of the crime scene and initial investigative information”.

Furthermore, Snook et al. stated that based on misconception of criminal profile as an investigative tool and overestimation of its results, people believe that criminal profiles can predict a criminal’s characteristics from crime scene. The aim of this paper is to review the utilisation of offender profiling as investigative tool and its accuracy, reliability and validity in criminal investigations.

It can be assumed that profiling has a number of definitions which differ from each other and therefore, may have different meanings as a part of the requests categorisation. For example, psychological profiling involves examination of offender behaviours, motives, emotions and mental background as a further investigation guide. Conversely, investigative profiling includes investigative outline of examination of criminal case to present a descriptive model of the features that characterise the possible perpetrator(s) of a particular crime(s) under analysis. Criminal profiling is an investigative tool that determines offender characteristics from the crime scene and the behaviour of the offender. It is an inferential process that involves the analysis of offender behaviour, their interactions with the crime scene, the offender and their choice of weapon among other things. Therefore criminal profiling can be defined as an assessment of a crime scene, which may help to understand the behaviours manifested in the order of that crime and from an investigation of those behaviours.

According to Turvey he identifies two main points of profiling, divided by their goals and main concern. The first is the investigative phase, which involves perceptive features of the unknown offender for the known crime. He suggested that in the investigative stage there are five primary goals; to reduce the viable suspect pool and to help prioritise the investigation into those remaining suspects, to assist in the linkage of potentially related crimes by identifying crime scene indicators and behaviour patterns (i.e., MO and signature), to assist in assessing the potential for escalation of nuisance criminal behaviour to more serious or more violent crimes (i.e., harassment, stalking, voyeurism), to provide investigators with investigative relevant leads and strategies, and to help keep the overall investigation on track. Hicks & Sales stated that constructing a profile of an unidentified offender involves three stages; collecting evidence from a crime scene by police officers, constructing behavioural, demographic and behavioural offender profile based on those evidence, and compile report which may assist to criminal investigation.

A series of studies were conducted to investigate the reliability, validity and accuracy of a criminal profile as a tool designed to assist law enforcement to prioritise search areas, and the most fundamental question in regards to profiling is whether the technique actually works, and were the predictions of profilers of the unknown offender accurate.

A study to examine the assumption that offenders who display similar crime scene behaviours are likely to have similar personal and socio-demographic characteristic was conducted by Mokros & Alison. They investigated this hypothesis on a sample of 100 British stranger-rapist whose crime scene behaviour was categorised according to occurrence of variety of variables (use of weapon, use of cover up etc) and index according to their similarity with one another. Results of the analysis revealed that rapist who display similar offending behaviour were no more similar in their socio-demographic variables (occupation, living situation, ethnicity etc), criminal history or age at the time of offence.

Another study conducted to investigate whether it was possible to predict whether homicide offenders had a previous criminal record on the basis of their victim’s characteristics was performed by Santtila, Runtti, & Mokros. Santilla et al. compared crime scene and offender characteristics with victim variables for 502 solved single victim/single offender homicides that had occurred in Finland between 1980 and 1994. The data within each case was coded according to the presence or absence of 8 victim variables (victim criminal record, victim ‘violent’ criminal record, relationship status, alcoholism, intoxication, psychiatric disorders, unemployment, housing status) and 2 offender variables (offender criminal record, offender ‘violent’ criminal record). All victim variables that occurred less than 5% of the time were discarded; the remaining victim variables that showed significant association with offender variables were subjected to multivariate analysis. Results indicated that while most offenders (71%) had no previous criminal records, there was a significant association between victims having a criminal record and the perpetrator having a criminal record. Results also pointed to a strong relationship between increased anti-social victim variables and situation characteristics (such as intoxication) and the offender having a previous violent criminal conviction. These research findings provide support for the relationship between some crime scene / victim variables and certain offender characteristics which is inherent to the profiler’s efficacy.

Snook et al suggested that the use of criminal profiling in criminal investigations has continued to increase despite limited empirical evidence that it is effective. To support his statement Snook et al conducted a narrative review and a 2-part meta-analysis of the published CP literature. Narrative review results suggest that the CP literature rests largely on commonsense justifications. Results from the first meta-analysis indicate that self-labelled profiler/experienced-investigator groups did not outperform comparison groups in predicting offenders’ cognitive processes, physical attributes, offense behaviours, or social habits and history, although they were marginally better at predicting overall offender characteristics. Results of the second meta-analysis indicate that self-labelled profilers were not significantly better at predicting offense behaviours, but outperformed comparison groups when predicting overall offender characteristics, cognitive processes, physical attributes, and social history and habits. Therefore, that could be assumed that the profiler’s ability to compose accurate profile of unknown offender do not rely on profiler specialised knowledge.

To investigate the accuracy of criminal personality profiles provided by profilers in contrast to non-profilers Pinizzotto & Finkel, conducted a study on a sample consisting of 28 individuals divided into five sub-groups. Group A contained 4 profiling experts, who taught police detectives profiling for the F.B.I. Group B consisted of 6 police detective profilers who had completed a one-year course at the Behavioural Science Unit of the F.B.I. Six police detectives untrained in offender profiling made up Group C, while Group D contained 6 clinical psychologists without experience in criminal investigations or offender profiling. Lastly, Group E was made up of 6 university undergraduates who were paid $10 each for their participation in the study. Participants were provided with information and materials from two separate crimes that had taken place and were subsequently solved by police. Of these investigations, one was a homicide and the other involved a sex offense. Participants were required to complete a multitude of tasks for this study testing their ability to determine what information was most relevant and their ability to write a detailed profile of the offender. Participants were also required to complete a multiple-choice questionnaire on different offender variables (e.g. gender, age, race etc) and were asked to rank a list of possible offenders in order of most likely to least likely to have committed the offence. Results indicated that profilers provided significantly more detailed profiles, were more accurate in their written profile of the sex offender and were more accurate in their rating of the possible offenders. However, there were no differences in profile accuracy found for the homicide case as a function of expertise, with expert profilers not significantly more accurate than university students.

Another study to measure profile accuracy and investigative experience as a factor for the accurate construction of a criminal profile was conducted by Kocsis et al. They compared a group of Irish police officers with two control groups of university students in a simulated profiling experiment. The results of this experiment showed no significant difference between any of the groups in the number of characteristics correctly predicted, and also suggests that investigative experience may not be a necessary factor for the accurate construction of a criminal profile.

Another study related to the question of profiling validity and accuracy was the study conducted by Kocsis & Middledorp. The aim of their research was to investigate whether there was a relationship between the perceived accuracy of information contained in an offender profile and one’s belief in profiling. The 353 participants in this study were Australian university undergraduates (52% male, 48% female) with a mean age of 19.7 years, without specific knowledge of criminal profiling or forensic psychology. Each of the participants was provided with a 3 section survey. The first section of the survey was made up of cover page and a ‘belief in profiling’ scale. There were 3 different versions of the cover page, one which promoted the effectiveness and value of profiling, one which devalued and criticised it, and one cover page which contained information completely irrelevant to profiling. After reading these cover articles the participants completed a questionnaire rating their belief in profiling. The next section of the survey provided participants with a description of a murder (crime scene, victim wounds) that had previously taken place and an offender profile that had been constructed for this case. At this stage participants were told one of two things, (a) that the profile they had was written by a professional profiler for the police, or (b), that the profile had been written for the police (without specifying who wrote it). The last section of the questionnaire required the participants to rate how accurate they thought the profile may be in relation to 39 offender characteristics.

Obtained results indicated that while estimated accuracy of the profile was not affected by whether the author was specified as professional or not, it was significantly related to scores on the ‘belief in profiling scale’ and the cover information provided. This relationship showed that increased belief in profiling was significantly correlated with increased perception of profile accuracy irrespective of actual profile content. The results of this study are highly relevant to the question of profiling validity as it highlights the implicit problems associated with relying on perceived accuracy rather than empirical evidence to assess the accuracy and validity of offender profiling.

However, after review of available research here have provided partial support for a relationship between particular crime scene variables and offender characteristics and have been quite consistently found that professional profilers predict offender characteristics with greater overall accuracy than non-profilers. It is relevant; however, to note that actual rather than just comparative accuracy rates have been identified and that profilers’ predictiveness has been less than perfect. Although the experimental evidences are still not overwhelming, studies such as those conducted by Kocsis promote the idea that profiling might have some validity, efficacy and accuracy. 

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Offender Profiling As An Investigative Tool in Criminology. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
“Offender Profiling As An Investigative Tool in Criminology.” GradesFixer, 07 Jul. 2022,
Offender Profiling As An Investigative Tool in Criminology. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 Aug. 2022].
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