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How the Psychology of Place Informs a Profiler—Or a Killer

Writing Tip: In crime tales, locations offer more than a place to set a story.

Key points

  • How people engage with their location reveals layers of emotion and personality.
  • Geographic profilers use this information to understand and anticipate offender activity there.
  • Writers will find geographical profiling a useful tool for richer storytelling.
Photo by author
Source: Photo by author

Whether crime writing involves fiction or true events, writers might be tempted to treat the location as just a way to orient readers and ground the narrative: It took place here. But the manner in which different people experience a place – especially the same place – can enhance character development, tension and pace. Authors who aspire to use location for greater dimension can benefit from concepts in geographic profiling (GP), which gathers data from an offender’s point of view.

For example, the man who murdered Libby German and Abby Williams near the deteriorating Monon High Bridge at Indiana’s Delphi Historic Trails in 2017 had likely been familiar with this area. He'd noticed that kids hike there and he’d calculated the best place to molest and kill them undetected. For the girls, the bridge was a fun photo-op; for their killer, the best spot to corner prey. Once he approached them, he controlled where they’d go next – “down the hill.” This killer remains unidentified.

Where offenders choose routes, select victims, and commit crimes reveals a lot about their personality, habits and methods. The Monan High Bridge killer seemed comfortable with heights and with a bridge that had uncertain footing. Given the rural milieu, he’s most likely a local. He arrived to the location at least partially on foot, prepared to commit a crime, and prepared to escape.

A key concept in GP is the psychological comfort zone, where offenders feel safe. Profilers try to determine what the offenders generally do in the designated area, i.e., what it might mean to them. If it’s outside, might they hunt or fish there? If it’s in an inhabited area, might they reside, visit relatives, or work there? How would they view it in terms of predatory activity? Where in this location would victims be most vulnerable and the predator least vulnerable? Other aspects of offender habits gained from assessing a location include range and degree of mobility, method of transportation, and their possible attitude about physical boundaries.

Dr. Kim Rossmo, director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation at Texas State University, created one of the GP software programs, Criminal Geographic Targeting (CGT). It’s based on the concept of mental maps. Different individuals have different perceptions about a location, and one’s approach to it (or avoidance of it) defines one’s mental map. Like physical maps, mental maps strengthen particular facets of our conceptual system, but they’re more personal. The places where offenders work, shop, hang out, and recreate define their comfort zone, which includes their “crime awareness space.” They know where the opportunities are.

Rossmo categorized four predatory patterns: a hunter searches in his comfort zone, a poacher travels to outlying territory, a troller is mostly opportunistic, and a trapper lures victims to a specific place. (There are also mixed types.)

GP queries that build the profile focus on distance and time traveled, time of day incidents occurred, weather and geographical features around the body dumpsites (for murders), amount of time that passed between incidents (if several are linked), and how the offender approached the victims. GP can assist to accurately estimate the offender’s degree of criminal sophistication, evidence of planning, risk tolerance, and eccentricities. Some offenders are more mobile than others, but some will still abandon their comfort zone if they worry about increased media coverage.

For a series of incidents, investigators seek to identify the zone of jeopardy. Using linked crimes, they feed location data into GP software, along with relevant geographical markers from physical maps (roads, bridges, canyons, boundaries). This generates a 3-D image that shows the offenders’ approximate area of operation. It also identifies features they might exploit or avoid.

This gets us back to perception.

British geographic profiler David Canter researched three components of place perception: actions, concepts and forms. “If we are to understand people's responses to places and their actions within them,” Canter says, “it is necessary to understand what (and how) they think.” The meaning of a place, he states, is defined by the action exerted, which derives from an offender’s assessment of location features: If I’m afraid to drive through a tunnel or over a bridge, I’ll take a longer way around. If I want a remote area, I’ll avoid where people gather.

Profilers form hypotheses about these perceptions to identify behavioral patterns and make predictions. “Our understanding of the situation,” Canter notes, “may be thought of as producing, or at least influencing, our behavior.” Profilers examine how offenders view potential escape routes, physical hindrances, and location-based reasons for their choices. For example, Dennis Rader, the BTK killer in Wichita, KS, looked for specific geographical features associated with homes he intended to enter, including their easy access to the interstate.

In The Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, Mary Buckham demonstrates ways to seamlessly incorporate this geographic psychology. She demonstrates how to use setting to enhance characters’ emotional sense of their location. If a female character enters the zone of jeopardy, for example, she might feel vulnerable, curious, thrilled, or even empowered. If she’s the killer, she’ll view this same area for how it supports or hinders her plan.

Location can be a powerful frame, as much for storytelling as for grasping the facets of an offender’s methods and manner.

References

Buckham, M. (2015). A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting. Writers Digest Press.

Canter, D. V. (2007). Mapping Murder: The Secrets of Geographical Profiling. Random House.

Canter, D. V. (1977). The Psychology of Place. Palgrave McMillan. 1977.

Rossmo, K. D. (2000). Geographic Profiling. CRC Press.

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