Is Criminal Profiling a Science, Art or Magic?

An inexact science, profiling has a long, storied history.

Posted Nov 10, 2014

Criminal profiler, Scott Bonn, Jody Foster, Clarice Starling

Jody Foster as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs

Profiling, or criminal investigative analysis, as it is called by the FBI, involves the investigation of a crime with the hope of identifying the responsible party, based on crime scene analysis, investigative psychology and behavioral science.

Due in large part to Jody Foster’s portrayal of FBI trainee and aspiring profiler Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, the profiling of serial killers has become a frequent and reoccurring theme on the popular culture landscape over the last twenty-five years. However, the depictions of criminal profiling and the profilers themselves are so stylized, exaggerated and unrealistic that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to tell fact from fiction in the media depictions of them.

Criminal profiling is a cross between law enforcement and psychology. It is still a relatively new field with few set boundaries or definitions. Practitioners of criminal profiling do not always agree on methodology or even terminology. Despite their disagreements, however, practitioners of profiling all share a common goal of analyzing evidence gathered at a crime scene and statements provided by victims and witnesses in order to develop a description of an unknown offender.

The offender description can include psychological factors such as antisocial personality traits, psychopathologies (mental illnesses), behavioral patterns, as well as demographic variables including, age, race and geographic location.

In practice, particularly as conducted by the FBI, criminal profiling is involved in the investigation, apprehension and prosecution phases of the criminal justice process. In the investigation phase, profiling is used to determine whether or not crimes are linked and to predict the personality and lifestyle characteristics of an unknown perpetrator. In the investigation phase, profiling is used to develop strategies to apprehend the unknown criminal and to assess the likelihood of escalation in the perpetrator’s crimes.

In the apprehension phase, profiling is used to predict where to look for an unknown serial criminal, to determine what information should be included in a search warrant, and how he/she may react upon apprehension. In the prosecution phase, criminal profilers act as experts in court to link crimes based on forensic evidence and to connect an alleged perpetrator to a series of crimes.

Profiling has a long and storied history. In what is frequently cited as the first application of criminal profiling techniques, London physicians George Phillips and Thomas Bond used autopsy results and crime scene evidence in the fall of 1888 to make rudimentary but informed predictions about legendary serial killer Jack the Ripper's personality, behavioral characteristics and lifestyle.

In his written report after examining the available forensic evidence from the Ripper’s crime scenes, including the bodies, Dr. Thomas Bond concluded that “all five murders no doubt were committed by the same hand… the women must have been lying down when murdered and in every case the throat was cut first.”

Dr. Bond stated that Jack the Ripper had no medical training or knowledge of anatomy, despite the killer’s extensive cutting and mutilation of his victims. This bold statement by Dr. Bond directly opposed what law enforcement authorities had previously concluded—that Jack the Ripper was either a physician or had medical training due to the fact that he had removed internal organs from some of his victims.

Dr. Bond reached his conclusion after noting that the gaping wounds inflicted by the Ripper were not consistent with the training of a medical expert or “even the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer.” In his opinion, the murderer must have been “a man of solitary habits, subject to periodic attacks of homicidal and erotic mania, and the character of the mutilations possibly indicating "satyriasis” or uncontrollable sexual desire.

Of course, we will never know for sure if Dr. Bond was correct because the Jack the Ripper murders remain officially unsolved. I present my case for the identity of Jack the Ripper in a separate article:

I discuss the motivations, fantasies and habits of notorious serial killers, including the “Son of Sam” and “Bind, Torture, Kill” based on my personal correspondence with them, in my new book “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.” To order it now, click:

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website