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Offender Profiling Explained

By Elisabeth Brookes, published July 22, 2021


When police have very little evidence to go on they will sometimes enlist the help of a forensic psychologist. The forensic psychologist will use prior knowledge and evidence gathered from the scene to build an offender profile.

Offender profiling is an investigative tool that aid the identification, apprehension and conviction of an unknown offender by providing the police with a description of the likely social (employment, marital status) and mental characteristics (level of education, motivation) of the offender.

It also provides predictions of who the offender is likely to attack next, where and when and possible interview strategies to elicit information about the crimes committed and confession of guilt.

Offender profiles are only as good as the information provided to the profiler. They should be regarded as one tool amongst many to be used by the police.

There are two approaches:
  • The top-down American approach: From the data gathered at the crime scene, the investigators can identify characteristics of the offender e.g. lifestyle or personality characteristics. From this the offender is categorised as either an organised or a disorganised offender. It is a top-down approach because it attempts to fit crime details under pre-existing categories (typologies).
  • The bottom-up British approach or investigative psychology: Starts with small details and creates the big picture. No initial assumptions are made about the offender and the approach relies heavily on computer databases. It can be the little details that are often overlooked that can be crucial to the success of a case.

Top Down – The FBI Approach

The phrase top-down refers to an approach, which starts with the big picture and then fills in the details. The Top Down of FBI approach relies on previous experiences of crimes.

This approach was pioneered in the US with the work of Ressler, Burgess and Douglas in the 1970s from the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit.

They interviewed 36 sexually motivated serial killers including Ted Bundy, the questions used related to factors such as early warning signs and possible triggers.

From the data obtained by the interviews, the data gathered at the crime scenes and examination of the crime itself, they identified typologies. Typologies are categories, groups of offenders displaying different clusters of behaviours and attitudes.

In 1980 Hazelwood and Douglas published their account of the ‘lust murderer’, they advanced a theory that lust murderers are mainly catergorised by two types: - Organised and disorganised.

top-down criminal profiling

An organised offender leads an ordered life and kills after some sort of critical life event. Their actions are premeditated and planned, they are likely to bring weapons and restraints to the scene. They are likely to be of average to high intelligence and employed.

A disorganised offender is more likely to have committed the crime in a moment of passion. There will be no evidence of premeditation and they are more likely to leave evidence such as blood, semen, murder weapon etc. behind. This type of offender is thought to be less socially competent and more likely to be unemployed.

Constructing a profile using the top-down approach

To generate a profile of the offender, the profiler

  1. Review the evidence gathered from the crime scene and other material evidence
  2. The crime scene is classified as organised or disorganised
  3. The crime is reconstructed – based on the evidence gathered hypotheses are made about what has occurred in terms of order of events, behaviour of the offender and of the victim.

These elements are then compared to the typographies and a profile is generated.

Critical Evaluation

Top down profiling is reductionist as the classification system (organised/disorganised) is too simple. Offenders are not simply either disorganised or organised. It may be that there are both organised and disorganised features to all their crimes. An offender may start off being disorganised and become more organised as they develop their modus operandi.

Top Down typology can only be applied to sexually motivated serial killers; because of the limitations of the originally sample that they interviewed: - sexually motivated serial killers!).

This approach assumes that the criminal behaviour will reflect characteristics of the offender and will remain stable over time and across offences; however criminals change over their criminal careers. They might change their modus operandi (the way they operate) as they become more forensically aware for example to avoid detection. However, research shows that more fundamental aspects of the crimes remain fairly stable over time because they are linked to motivation and needs, this is what Canter called “central narrative themes”.

This theory is deterministic as it assumes that the offender’s behaviour is shaped by stable personality traits but Alison et al. (2002) argues that the offender’s behaviour is the result of complex interaction of many factors such as context and interaction with the victim so is not stable and predictable.

Furthermore, Alison et al. (2003) also questions the assumptions that similar types of offenders will commit crime in a similar way. Mokros and Alison (2002) compared criminal behaviour, background and criminal history of 100 British male rapists. They found that rapists who offended in similar ways did not share any of these characteristics.

The data on which the approach is based is unreliable as it was gained from the interview of offenders who are very manipulative; this raises questions about the validity of the data obtained. However the interviewers also had a very thorough briefing of the facts which helped them detect deception. Furthermore, the data was obtained from American men this questions the generalisability of the findings and the theory based on this data to other cultures and to women.

The typologies organised disorganised offenders has been challenged by Canter (2004) who analysed the data of 100 murders in the US using “smaller space analysis”. He found that there was support for the organised typology but no support for the disorganised typology. This undermines the classification system.

According to Holmes (1998) the top-down approach has contributed to arrest in only 17% of the cases in which it was used. This is still a valuable contribution as it is used in very serious cases where lives are at risk.


Bottom Up – The British Approach

This approach was pioneered by psychologists David Canter and Paul Britton working with the police. Canter (1990) is the UK’s foremost profiling expert; his bottom-up approach looks for consistencies in offenders’ behavior during the crime. Canter’s most famous case is that of the ‘Railway Rapist’ John Duffy.

John Duffy carried out 24 sexual attacks and 3 murders of women near railway stations in North London in the 1980s. David Canter analysed the geographical details and the evidence and drew up a surprisingly accurate profile. However, it should be noted that the profile didn’t directly lead to John Duffy’s arrest.

The bottom-up approach is data-driven; the profile is constructed based on the association between particular characteristics of the offence and of the offender. It started by an individual analysis of individual crimes and series of crimes. Canter then started to statistically analyse solved crime and identified clusters of events and behaviours that occur together (smallest place analysis). From this analysis he derived typologies.

A crucial concept of this approach is interpersonal coherence, the way an offender behaves while committing a crime, e.g. the way they interact with the victim, reflects the way they behave and interact in their everyday life.

A second key concept of Canter’s theory is spatial consistency. He makes the assumption that offenders operate in areas that they know well. Canter and Larkin (1993) proposed two categories of offenders:

  • Marauders: they commit their crimes close to where they live and feel secure.
  • Commuters: they commit their crimes away from where they usually live and over large areas.

This has been the base of geographical profiling. Geographical Profiling is used to make inferences about where an offender is likely to live. This is also known as crime mapping.

Circle Theory of Environmental Range

Canter and Larkin (1993) proposed the circle theory of environmental range. This is based on the study of many cases which showed that if a circle is drawn that encompasses all linked crimes, the offender will be based somewhere within the circle.

Rossmo (2000) suggests that in general criminals offend close to their homes (or other base e.g. workplace) and the number of offences drops off with increasing distance from the base. This is supported by Godwin and Canter (1997) found that 85 % of the offenders they studied lived inside the circle encompassing their offences.

It is more difficult to geographically profile commuters, although when investigators were looking at the disappearance and murder of 4 young girls from different and seemingly unrelated areas of Britain in the 1980s, the dumping of the bodies in laybys next to major A roads (including Twycross, just up the road) led to a break through. It was realised that his likely occupation was delivery driver, giving him access to a van/lorry for easy transportation and led to him ‘commuting’ all over the country, travelling along A roads.

Critical Evaluation

Geographical profiling has support; Godwin and Canter (1997) found that 85 % of the offenders they studied lived inside the circle encompassing their offences. However, Koscis and Irwin found that only 50% of burglars lived in the circle defined by their offences. Snook et al (2005) examined the offence locations of 53 serial murderers in Germany and found that in 63% of cases the killer lived within 6 miles of where the bodies were found.

This approach can provide useful information to aid the police in narrowing their search. However, it requires accurate data on the offences committed in a particular area and this might be a problem with under-reporting of crimes by the public, the recording of crimes by the police could also limit the effectiveness of this method.

Unlike the top-down approach, investigative psychology can be applied to a wide range of offences. It has been used in burglary and car crime.

Investigative psychology is more scientific than the top-down approach as it is based on psychological theories and research. However, like the top-down approach, investigative psychology is based on research carried out in Western societies so it might not apply to other cultures without modifications.

Psychological profiles based on this approach have enabled the police to catch offenders in a number of high-profile cases including that of John Duffy. Such cases have attracted a high degree of media attention however there has also been spectacular failures such as Rachel Nickel’s killer.

Copson (1995) carried out a survey of detectives who had worked with offender profiling found that the advice given in the profile only helped to catch the offender in 3% of the cases. However it was found to be useful in 83% of the cases where it had been used but it only offered direct help in solving the crime in 14 percent of the cases.

One of the problems seems to come from a lack of consistency in the British approach. There are a number of individuals in the UK providing psychological profiles for the police with different backgrounds in psychology and psychiatry, each using their own approach.

About the Author

Elisabeth Brookes is an A-level psychology teacher, and author of her own website http://www.psychbug.co.uk/

How to reference this article:

Brookes, E. (2021, July 22). Offender Profiling explained. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/offender-profiling.html

APA Style References

Alison, L., Bennell, C., Mokros, A., & Ormerod, D. (2002). The personality paradox in offender profiling: A theoretical review of the processes involved in deriving background characteristics from crime scene actions. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 8(1), 115.

Alison, L., Smith, M. D., Eastman, O., & Rainbow, L. (2003). Toulmin's philosophy of argument and its relevance to offender profiling. Psychology, Crime & Law, 9(2), 173-183.

Canter, D. (2004). Offender profiling and investigative psychology.

Canter, D. V., Alison, L. J., Alison, E., & Wentink, N. (2004). The organized/disorganized typology of serial murder: Myth or model?. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 10(3), 293.

Canter, D., & Larkin, P. (1993). The environmental range of serial rapists. Journal of environmental psychology, 13(1), 63-69.

Copson, G., Badcock, R., Boon, J., & Britton, P. (1997). Articulating a systematic approach to clinical crime profiling.

Godwin, M., & Canter, D. (1997). Encounter and death: The spatial behavior of US serial killers. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management.

Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) – ‘The Lust Murderer’. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 49(4), 18-22.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (1998). Serial murder. Sage Publications, Inc.

Ressler, R. K., Douglas, J. E., Groth, A. N., & Burgess, A. W. (1980). Offender profiles: A multidisciplinary approach. FBI law enforcement bulletin, 49(9), 16-20.

Kocsis, R. N., Hayes, A. F., & Irwin, H. J. (2002). Investigative experience and accuracy in psychological profiling of a violent crime. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17(8), 811-823.

Mokros, A., & Alison, L. J. (2002). Is offender profiling possible? Testing the predicted homology of crime scene actions and background characteristics in a sample of rapists. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 7(1), 25-43.

Snook, B., Zito, M., Bennell, C., & Taylor, P. J. (2005). On the complexity and accuracy of geographic profiling strategies. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 21(1), 1-26.

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