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Is profiling an art or a science

Profiling is broadly defined as a behavioural and investigative technique in forensic science that helps investigator to profile an unknown subject or offenders, with the analysis of the behaviour and circumstances associated with serious crimes in an effort to identity the probable characteristics of the perpetrator. A specific profile analysis or known as criminal investigative analysis by the FBI, offender profiling, criminal personality profiling, behavioural profiling or forensic psychologist often calls investigative psychology. Despite the different names in the field of profiling, they all share a common goal as to help investigators examine evidence from crime scenes and victim and witness reports to develop an offender description.

Offender profiling most commonly associated with law enforcement, although profiling takes place in other areas and in other contexts not limited to criminal justice (Harris 2002; Bungarner, 2004). However, many law enforcement professionals, criminologists, and behavioural scientists do not understand profiling as an investigate technique. Consequently, they may not appreciate what profilers can do, and may question their value. Wrightman (2001) has defined criminal profiling is much more of a law enforcement technique and art form than it is a scientific process. Jeffers (1991) proposed that ‘criminal profiling will never take the place of a thorough and well-planned investigation, nor will it ever eliminate the seasoned, highly trained and skilled detectives.’ (p.1) However, he further suggested that profiling has provided some useful approaches for those who must deal with violent crime. Therefore, whether profiling is an art or a science has been put forward by many researchers, such as Kocsis (2003), Williams & Johnson (2005) and Kocsis, Hayes & Irwin (2002).

Offender profiling has its long history to the early research into the criminal, although only came to public attention in the 1970’s. Although as a science, it is still a relatively new field with few set boundaries or definitions. Informal criminal profiling can trace its root as early as the 1880’s by two physicians; George Phillips and Thomas Bond who based on some clues from the crime scene to make predictions about British serial murderer Jack the Ripper's personality. However, the first systematic offender profile within a criminal investigation not until the mid 1950’s by the psychiatrist Dr James Brussel, and he was asked to help in the capture of the “Mad bomber of New York”. On the other hand, Howard Teten a formerly FBI agent had a great interest in the work of Dr Brussel called ‘casebook of a criminal psychiatrist’ in 1968, and Teten first introduced a fascinating insight of profiling into the behavioural science unit within the FBI. Nowadays the term “profiling” has been the subject of interest and caught on among the general public and media, largely due to movies like “The Silence of the Lambs” and TV shows like “Profiler”. The art of criminal profiling has been depicted with typical Hollywood exaggeration which tend to give the profiler almost mysterious abilities to solve the most difficult of crimes. In more recent times, a TV drama called ‘Criminal Minds’ by Jeff Davis (2005) in the USA evolved a stunning insight of criminal profiling in the Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) within the FBI. For example, one case of a series of murders at the Gulf Coast and had a strong evidence of DNA with the perpetrator Mark Gregory who had killed four women. However, the FBI agents were unable to arrest him who has been missing for 36 hours with a new victim. From the crime scene, all victims were tortured in different forms and drown in hotel bathrooms in the same general area. All victims were alive when they were put in the water became an important part of his signature. It has been suggested that looking into Gregory’s past to discover motives for his actions or Modus operandi (MO) and understand his behaviour as a child would better help to find out his next move in this case. Consequently, some aspects of Gregory’s profile have been put forward based on some clues at his house, that he was good in disguises and devolved haphazard behaviour towards victims. It has been discovered that Gregory’s series of murders were due to the car accident with his mother when he was 10, and his mother was probably his first victim. They have concluded that Gregory would probably take the last victim to the site of the original accident and his mother’s death, where they finally found him with the victim (Ep. 20). It can be seen that from a convergence of physical and behavioural evidence, is still considerably artful, and based on some scientific tenets with forensic analysis, victimology, and crime scene characteristics. However, Canter (1995) has drawn upon more in psychologically profiling that he described the FBI type of profiling as “…more of an art than a science…”. Hazelwood, Ressler, Depue, and Douglas (1987) proposed that criminal profiling emphasised an objective approach based on experience of criminal investigations, and put it very clearly the view of these FBI agents was that:

“Successful profilers are experienced in criminal investigations and research and possess common sense, intuition, and the ability to isolate their feelings about the crime, the criminal, and the victim. They have the ability to evaluate analytically the behaviour exhibited in a crime and to think very much like the criminal responsible.” (Hazelwood et al., 1987, p.148).

Geberth (1981) defined profiling as an educated attempt to provide investigative agencies with specific information about a certain type of suspect; however, the use of the words “educated attempt” may be disputed by some profilers who feel that theirs is closer to science than educated guessing. A profiler should be able to develop typologies, understand the link between the characteristics of offenders and the crime scene, suggest proactive, investigative and trial strategies and therefore develop information that is useful in violent crime investigations, such as prevention (Hinman, 1999). Therefore whether criminal profiling is scientifically useful and effective, the validities and abilities of criminal profiling to investigations will be discussed.

Many psychologists, together with criminologists and law enforcement officials have begun using psychology's statistical and research methods to bring more science into the art (Winerman, 2004). Applying the scientific method in profiling, it should contain some basic steps, such as observation, the collection of data, conjecture, hypothesis testing, and the development of theory (Lee et al., 1983; pp. 1-3; Faigman et al., 1997, pp. 47-80). In addition, it should be based upon the reliability and validity of the violent crime database, the profiling process itself, and the various type of forensic science core knowledge that is used by the profiler (e.g. blood spatter patterns).

Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990) possibly the first published an empirically investigate the accuracy of profiling. The research involved the details of a closed rape and murder case given prior to small groups of participants, and they were to identify the likely offender with the same profiling exercises. Participants included trained profilers, clinical psychologists, police detectives and students. The profiling exercises involved the linguistic measurement of the produced profiles, a prioritisation exercise of potential suspects, an exercise to measure the recollection of case information and two 15-item multiple-choice questionnaires. Since the details of the perpetrators of both offences were known, the criterion for quantitative analysis was that participants were required to provide the “correct” profile in this research. However, Pinizzotto and Finkel concluded that the two questionnaires were most relevant in the study, and provided an objective reasoning of the participants’ predictions concerning the characteristics of the probable offender for both the rape and murder case. However, no significant differences were found among any of the groups involving the number of correct predictions in the murder case. Furthermore, results showed that the sampled profilers’ mean score to be the lowest among the four groups, and were unable to predict the characteristics of the murderer any better than any of the other groups. On the other hand, professional groups, such as profilers, detectives and psychologists were found to be significantly surpassed in prediction of the rapists among the non-professional students. Therefore, it supported the accuracy of profiling to be effective and scientific investigative, although only limited evidence in support of the rape case exercise.

Furthermore, Kocsis (2003) analysed the accuracy of profiling and its requisite skill base in accessing the validity of profiling and his study was similar to that of Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990). Kocsis has used actual case materials from a closed murder and a closed arson investigation, and further developed test instruments to measure a person’s ability to assess these materials and predict the characteristics of the probable offenders. These test instruments involved a 33-item multiple-choice questionnaire and case materials that the police investigators had on hand before the offenders were arrested. Participants were required to articulate their predictions of the likely offender based on these materials, and over 6 years nearly 450 participants involved, including police detectives, university students, psychologists, professional profilers, and psychics. Results showed that the ability of the profilers group was significantly predicted the characteristics of an unknown offender accurately than the other groups. However, the findings of the study indicated that proficient profiling was most likely to arise from an individual’s fundamental capacity for logical and objective reasoning. Surprisingly, some of the sampled university students who had no experience in law enforcement were found to surpass predictions of some of the seasoned detectives in the study. Nevertheless, these findings have provided some scientific based evidence to support the validity of profiling. On the other hand, the lack of published and programmatic research on the reliability and validity in the technique of criminal profiling, it might cause law enforcement to incorrectly target suspects for investigation and thereby violate their rights to privacy, or it may be used as evidence and “inappropriately direct the legal fact finder or usurp the fact finder’s role” in the justice system (Poythress et al., 1993, p.11). Ault, Hazelwood, and Reboussin (1994) further agreed that the reliability and validity evidence about criminal investigative analysis would be appropriate and desirable, however perceived utility and anecdotal evidence are not validation, that validation studies could “give criminal investigative analysis legitimacy as a scientific enterprise” (1994, p.73).

It is important that for a scientific progress in profiling, it focused on behavioural evidence and a good deal of diversity in the techniques. However, too much diversity would result in the field becoming fragmented theoretically, and therefore less accessible to application. There are at least three ways in which fragmentation might occur in the field of offender profiling, such as individual differences between profiles, differences in frameworks and differences in culture. The potential of profiling is challenging and needs to be tested and evaluated, before it can be fully integrated into an investigative framework. It is not necessarily that two profilers will produce the same profile, since it included skills (physical and mental), intuition, and the processes of insight and acquired through experience. On the whole, the effectiveness of profiling is best used as a guide and should not be confused with containing detailed facts. Psychological profiles will narrow down the potential base of possible suspects in an overall investigative pattern, but it is not necessarily intended to actually identify a suspect.

In conclusion, profiling can be defined as a relatively new science, based on basic forensic science and empirical behavioural research. However, it is broadly established as the art of profiling, where it is dependent upon an individual’s fundamental knowledge through investigative experience. Although profiling is a practical investigative tool, it is not as much of reliability and validity as it would be compared to other scientific investigations. However, profiling may become more of a science into the art that continues based on more empirical and objective new research of the types.

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