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Forensic Psychology

The Birth of Modern Day Criminal Profiling

As depicted in Mindhunter on Netflix, FBI profiling has a rich history.

Source: Pixabay

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. It has a fascinating history and evolution.

In 1972, the FBI formed a Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) in Quantico, Virginia, to investigate serial rape and homicide cases. Two supervisory agents within the FBI, John Douglas and the late Robert Ressler, set out on a mission to interview incarcerated serial predators to obtain information about their motives, planning and preparation, details of the crimes, and the disposal of evidence, including the bodies of victims. Their fictionalized exploits are depicted in the Netflix series Mindhunter.

Their goal was to compile a centralized database in which the motives of serial offenders were matched with crime scene information. Between 1976 and 1979, Douglas, Ressler and several colleagues interviewed a total of thirty-six serial predators and collected massive amounts of data.

Douglas and Ressler soon faced the problem of how to analyze and share the data they had collected with their law enforcement colleagues nationwide. The answer came in the form of a $1 million research grant that facilitated the design of a computerized database system called the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). This system allowed the FBI for the first time to cross-reference information from open cases involving serial predators to closed cases in the database in order to match behavioral characteristics and patterns.

More specifically, VICAP was designed to aid investigators in narrowing the search for an unknown subject (or “Unsub” in FBI terminology) and create a likely offender profile by matching the details in an open case to the details in closed cases. Although FBI profilers began working in the field around 1979, VICAP profiling research and analysis were not formalized until 1984 when the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) was created within the agency.

Ever since the introduction of the VICAP system, a local police department anywhere in the U.S. or Canada can fill out a request form and submit it to the NCAVC for analysis of a series of unsolved murders, people missing under suspicious circumstances or unidentified human bodies. The VICAP data is then entered into the Profiler computer system.

VICAP is an artificially intelligent system, meaning that the computer software has been programmed to reason like a human being using “if-then” scenarios. For example, “if the victim was found at the scene of the crime with no apparent attempt to conceal the body, then the offender is likely to be a spontaneous killer who does not meticulously plan a murder prior to committing it.”

The system is constantly updated so that every time the NCAVC research team learns something new about the behavior of serial offenders the information is programmed into Profiler in the form of a new line of reasoning. Profiler is a tool, not a substitute for human analysis. It uses logic and statistics to arrive at human-like conclusions quickly and create a profile by sorting through the millions of possible if-then combinations.

The FBI model of criminal profiling is known as criminal investigative analysis (CIA) and it is based on a premise that the personality of an unknown perpetrator can be predicted. More specifically, the “basic premise [of criminal profiling] is that behavior reflects personality,” said retired FBI special agent Gregg McCrary (1).

In a serial homicide case, according to McCrary, as reported by the APA Monitor of Psychology in 2004, FBI agents glean insights into criminal personality by answering questions about the murderer's behavior at four different crime phases:

  • Antecedent: What fantasy or plan, or perhaps both, did the murderer have in place before committing the act of murder? What triggered the murderer to act sometimes and not others?
  • Method and manner: What type of victim or victims did the murderer select? What was the method and manner of murder—that is, shooting, stabbing, strangulation, poisoning or something else?
  • Body disposal: Did the murder and body disposal take place all at one scene or multiple scenes? Was there an attempt to hide the bodies?
  • Post-offense behavior: Is the murderer trying to inject himself/herself into the investigation by reacting to news media reports or contacting police investigators?

I will share more history and information about modern day criminal profiling, as practiced by the FBI, in future articles here.

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

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, author and TV analyst. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website


(1) Winerman, L. 2004. “Criminal profiling: The reality behind the myth.” Monitor on Psychology, 35 (7), p. 66.

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