Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D.

Deborah Schurman-Kauflin Ph.D.


Does Criminal Profiling Work?

How criminal profiling benefits law enforcement

Posted Feb 11, 2014

Whenever there is an infamous case, whether a terror attack or a serial murder case, critics come crawling out of the wood-work. Most often, police and governments are the targets of the bad mouthing. Monday morning quarterbacks speak to the media and complain that “they” would have run the investigation better. “They” would have solved the case more quickly. “They” would have stopped the attack before it began. “They” would have gotten hostages out without any receiving so much as a scratch.

This makes one wonder why “they” do not come forward when the case initially occurs. That way, there would be no serial crime or terrorism because “they” could solve the problem before it happens. The criticism does not stop at police, however. These same critics say criminal profiling is not a hard science, and so it cannot be helpful. If this was true, companies would not bother spending millions of dollars on personal data gathering in order to find patterns and create profiles of their customers. Behavioral profiling is used by companies when they advertise their products. Lawmakers use profiling when they carefully craft their words in order to get a good response from their constituents. Medical doctors use behavioral profiling. They ask you about your symptoms and make educated guesses based on their past cases and apply that knowledge to you.

There are those who ask whether gathering personal and crime characteristics can be extrapolated to a larger population to create profiles. In reality, this happens every day, all over the world. Extrapolation is done by governments, companies, mechanics, film makers, television productions, and even in the medical community. When there are clinical trials for a new medication, researchers test the drug on a group of people. Usually the test number is anywhere from 1000 and up. If there is a good result for the people in the test study, the drug is released for hundreds of millions of people. It is assumed that the drug will work well for most everyone. In essence, they extrapolate their results because it will work most of the time. Is it perfect? No. However, it works well enough that entire nations and billion dollar corporations use it.

The reader should recognize that profiling does not catch killers or terrorists by itself. Old fashioned police work and forensic science help catch offenders. However, behavior does reflect personality; therefore, behavior at a crime scene (this includes a terror attack) can disclose information about the perpetrator. The more behavior evident, the better a profile can be. And the more one can profile an offender, the better the predication value. In short, the more I know about you, the better I am able to know what you would do in a specific situation.

One reporter asked me if profiling should be done away with all together since no profiler is always 100% correct. I responded to his question with the question: what does a medical doctor do? He replied “a medical doctor helps heal the sick.” I told him that was true but again asked him the same question. What does a medical doctor do? What is a medical doctor’s role? He seemed confused, and I eventually told him that a medical doctor practices medicine. No medical doctor can guarantee that if she treats you for an illness that she can help you. Furthermore, medical doctors can’t even guarantee that they won’t make you worse off! Why is that? Why, if medicine is a science, will a medical doctor not write out an agreement stating that with a certain course of treatment, you will be 100% cured? It is because though medicine is a science, doctors practice it based on their expertise.

Human beings are versatile, and no one can ever predict with 100% accuracy how a human will heal or react. But do we scrap medicine, saying why bother? The answer is ‘no.’ We go to our physicians with the hope that they can heal us. Criminal profilers work the same way. We may not always be 100% accurate, but we work based on seeing thousands of cases, drawing on years of experience, and using our education. Again, criminal profiling is merely one of many tools police, governments, and corporations have at their disposal. Sometimes it can help police narrow the focus of an investigation. Many times it helps reaffirm what detectives already know. Research done by profilers has helped police focus in on the right suspects in murder cases. Furthermore, profilers provide detectives with interviewing tips designed specifically for a suspect being questioned. These help elicit information that may not have otherwise been brought forth. In short, there are many ways in which criminal profiling has benefited law enforcement. Just the wealth of knowledge from offender interviews done by profilers is valuable on its own.

For those who want to be a profiler, remember to keep trying. Anyone can be a criminal profiler. Don’t let anyone discourage you if you are interested in this field. Do research and study as much about criminal behavior as possible. Learn as much as you can about forensic science and try to get employment doing investigative work so that you have good training. After a while, you will recognize patterns that allow you to analyze cases. Keep working toward your goal, and don’t give up.

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