The First Mind Hunter
A brief history of criminal profiling.
Posted May 11, 2020
Given the proliferation of true crime and fictional crime shows on television—many featuring the exploits of serial killers and the FBI agents who track them—it is not surprising that people have become fascinated by criminal profiling. The tremendously popular Netflix series Mindhunter which is now on indefinite hold by the streaming service has had much to do with this trend.
You may ask: What exactly is criminal profiling? Broadly speaking, it is a cross between law enforcement and psychology. It is still a relatively new field with few set boundaries or definitions. Nevertheless, practitioners of profiling all share a common goal of analyzing evidence gathered at a crime scene and statements provided by victims and witnesses to develop a description of an unknown offender.
Who was the first practitioner? In what is frequently cited as the first application of criminal profiling techniques, visionary London police surgeon Thomas Bond used autopsy results and crime scene evidence in the fall of 1888 to make rudimentary but well-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, 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.” 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.
Profiling techniques were later used during World War II by the U.S. government in an attempt to create a personality profile of Adolf Hitler. The report was commissioned by the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan. The OSS, the precursor of the modern CIA, retained psychiatrist Walter C. Langer to probe the psychology of Adolf Hitler from the available information. A psychodynamic personality profile was created with the purpose of predicting what decisions Hitler might make under certain hypothetical circumstances.
Officially titled "A Psychological Profile of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend," the report was prepared and submitted in late 1943. Langer’s profile proved to be quite accurate, including his prediction that if the defeat of Germany was imminent, Hitler would most likely commit suicide. This groundbreaking study was the pioneer of modern-day offender profiling techniques and it served to legitimize the use of psychoanalysis for investigative purposes.
Up until the early 1980s, profilers relied mostly on their own intuition and informal, anecdotal research. Harvey Schlossberg, Ph.D., former director of psychological services for the NYPD, described the approach he used in the late 1960s and 1970s to develop profiles of unknown subjects by locating commonalities in closed cases—that is, where the perpetrator was identified and apprehended. Dr. Schlossberg said:
“What I would do is sit down and look through cases where the criminals had been arrested. I listed how old [the perpetrators] were, whether they were male or female, and their level of education. Did they come from broken families? Did they have school behavioral problems? I listed as many factors as I could come up with, and then I added them up to see which were the most common.” (1)
Dr. Schlossberg, who developed profiles of many unknown criminals during the formative years of profiling, including the infamous Son of Sam, has stated that profiling is far from an exact science. This observation points to the value of individualized knowledge and interpretation of evidence, and also indicates that some professionals are more gifted in this regard than others.
In the early 1970s, 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 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 36 serial predators and collected massive amounts of data. Their fictionalized exploits have been depicted in the Netflix series Mindhunter.
In real life, Douglas and Ressler 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 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.
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.
It is important to remember that the Profiler system 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. Nothing, however, can replace the human mind.
Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, best-selling author, professor, and media expert.
1. Winerman, L. 2004. “Criminal profiling: The reality behind the myth.” Monitor on Psychology, 35 (7), p. 66.