the use of investigative psychology in police investigation

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Research and studies has found that here is a specificity of the human’s framework of behavioural patterns such as crime. According to Herbert Packer (1968, p. 364) crime is dependent on the perception and perspective of what the society labels or define as criminal occurrence. According to him, crime is a concept of social and political creation.

Profiling broadly defined is the development of a likely description of an offender based on the analysis of crime scene, victim and other available evidence and databases. Criminal profiling is a concept that has known evolution through decades. It made its apparition during the middle Ages. Even through it was at a primitive scale of understanding, it evolved and it was only during the 19th century that it was attempted in a truly systematic fashion. The concept has been adopted in the sense that it could take part in many other social and institutional processes. Indeed, it has been used in accordance to advancement in criminology and scientific or professional progress for the creation of crime prevention strategies or even in the judicial institutional branches.

Since then, criminal profiling has become a developing science of practice to solve or help in investigation by using various methods, one of which is known as investigative psychology.



The main character of this technique can be described as being the implementation of a framework for the diversity of known aspects of psychology in areas of investigations. Its main concern is in relation between the understanding of examined criminal occurrences and the detection of crime. It also accompanies the mechanisms of the judiciary for development of proper crime detection and hence appropriate legal proceedings.

‘Investigative psychology is concerned with the psychological input to the full range of issues that relate to the management, investigation and prosecution of crime.’ ~Donna E Youngs and David V Canter

The process of IP is all about using psychological aspects and knowledge as base in the formulation of profiles. These profiles are based on information gathered from previous cases and other theories of criminology, psychology, psychiatry or any other field of expertise that could reveal characteristics of the offender or the criminal act itself. Therefore, professionals can make assumptions on the possible personality traits and psychological mode of operation of the perpetrator.

Therefore, IP can contribute to investigations at mainly two levels. Firstly, being based on empirical studies and theories, it can provide in some circumstances direct answers or possibilities. Secondly, it can provide frameworks of reference for the comprehension of strategies and models of investigation that investigators should favor in the attempt of finding answers.


For the purpose of illustrating the actual influence the investigative psychology method, let us have a look at a case where the use of the method made a consequent impact in the course of investigation, arrest and trial.

Rapist of South Auckland area of North Island of new Zealand

The rapist has been perpetrating serial sexual attacks for a period of 12 years. The police’s conventional methods revealed unsuccessful after 50 recorded violent sexual assaults and even though DNA material was found as evidence for the forensics. Therefore, the investigating team as last resort turned their attention to a more scientific method of working and interpreting police records. The IP approach consisted of linking the mode of operation and criminal background of the offender, and analyzing the knowledge that the offender had on the specific area he would carry out his attacks. Then analyzing the databases available, the typical age range of offenders linked to similar assaults was established. Considerations were given to the geographical distribution of the crime scenes, which also allowed the team to localize hypothetically the more likely base of the offender. At that point, inference and conclusions were reached, using the IP approach, about the criminal traits, that are for example his age and criminal experience, likely field of professional practice and with the help of witness descriptions, his base location was established. This narrowed the framework of research down to 1, 717 suspects. Then finally with the DNA lead the search narrowed to only one individual. When the police came for him, he said ‘I’ve been waiting for you guys’.


Some processes can be located in the case study above. The different approach on a multi-disciplinary basis can provide better guidance and promote adoption and implementation of specific interpretation of certain evidence and context of the criminal offence to link crime to the perpetrator. For instance investigative psychology can help in classifying and tackling operational questions. Investigative psychology can give better insight to ten classes of operational questions to the investigator in the course of criminal investigations.

  1. Salience

It concerns the scrutiny and perceptiveness in the study of a crime scene and identifying the possible evidence, which could in some circumstances seem of so much apparent significance that it could get pass the investigators’ vigilance when it could reveal features that could be determinant in the comprehension of the context the crime happened in. This definitely could help in the course of investigation.

  1. Suspect Elicitation

Promotes narrowing and guidance in the proper records or sources of information that the investigators should or could focus on to help identify the offender.

  1. Suspect Prioritisation

Helps in identifying particular characteristics of an offender hence narrowing the research field of the investigators allowing pinpointing individuals more precisely. This process considers past offences and the behavioural patterns linked to them, linking crimes to same offenders or not. This helps a lot, when the offender is already in the database of the investigating institutions.

  1. Offender Location

This is mainly the deduction of the offender’s likely area where he has a base. For example, his living place. This can naturally narrow the research patterns and hence focus resources such as the personnel and investigations mechanisms in specific areas.

  1. Linking Crimes

This stage of IP is more intuitive than scientific. Indeed the ability to link several criminal occurrences to the same offender depends on the amount of information that each crime could give to the investigators and the degree of specificity that each offender has in his modus operandi or behavioural patterns. The concept of salience is of great importance here as it might be rare that each offender shows ‘signatures’ in their mode of operation.

  1. Prediction

Concerned in determining where and when the offender is most likely to commit the next criminal act. It can also extend to the way in how the crime is more likely to occur. It is a key operational concern so as to prevention in cases of serial criminal.

  1. Investigative Decision-Making

IP helps in devising decision-making models for investigations. Since it is open to psychological examination and other fields of concern, investigation can be influenced by the knowledge of cognitive and social processes which are involved at the different levels of the criminal occurrence under investigation. Therefore implies the consideration of such contextual decision support tools.

  1. Information Retrieval

Following the investigative Decision making processes, collection of information can be made more specific and effective, like in the sense that interviews could be conducted by following strategies inspired by the influence of psychological or psychodynamics models. Therefore, acquisition of data can be carried out in specific manners to ensure production of relevant evidence.

  1. Evaluation of Information

Evaluation with reference to professional or academic knowledge in the fields of criminal psychology can help ensure the precise and accurate deduction through both the operations of investigations and the judicial level. Here the interesting case of the Hillside Strangler could be used as reference. In this case, the offender was trying to dupe the investigators by faking his psychological state. Adopting a strategy designed by Martin Orne, after an interview, the killer’s play was over and had to cooperate with the police.

  1. Preparation of case

In the course of trials or legal proceedings, the parties are bound to argue giving evidence as support. In that perspective, the psychological approach towards the models and ideas of the human behaviour can be useful into the structure of legal cases, and this will improve the quality of arguments.


The main flaws that could be observed in profiling would be that it depends a lot on assumptions based on interpretations. One frequent assumption which is being questioned by academics is the assumption that the human behaviour is consistent across situations or that particular offence style or evidence revealed on crime scene and other clues link the investigator to specific psychological characteristics of the offender. In 2002 Alison et al argued that the most current methods depend on naïve or outdated perception of personality and trait approach. They argued that global traits or vague personality types are unlikely to predict criminal behaviour and that it would be difficult for the profiler to classify the offenders in clusters of socio-demographic characteristics based on broad personality types. Moreover they questioned the implication or use of profiling in the course of judicial procedures, like for evidence (unless research has shown its predictive validity).

In parallel Snock et al (2007) also argued that there is very little empirical evidence to support profiling’s validity as it relies too much on ‘gut feeling’. The consequent limitations on the amount and type of information available make the deductions questionable and hence prone risks of biases. For instance, the assumption of trans-situational consistency in the behaviour of an individual which is being used as template for designing profiles is intensely criticized as it leads to an oversimplication of human interaction toward situations. So too what extent could inquisitions and conclusions on such assumption be reliable? Moreover, it is argued that the possibility of vagueness of evidence could promote risks of misleading conclusions. For example; confirmation bias which shows how sometimes one might interpret clues in the way which is more appealing to him giving a touch of bias in the course of investigation. Like in the case of the Green river killer, where the killer was more than once considered to be innocent even though he fit in the descriptions and that evidence lead to him on several occasions. In the same perspective, even though predictions and findings on the offenders tend to be accurate, these clues do not always turn out to be material on which investigators can act upon. For example in the case of Jack the Ripper, where the number of possible suspects was astonishingly big

Therefore, the problems that investigators may encounter when adopting the IP approach of profiling are;

  • The selection of behaviour; which questions the behavioral features considered and to be considered important in the identification of the offender
  • Distinguishing between offenders; questioning the reliability of the investigators in their ways of indicating the differences between crimes and offenders.
  • Inferring characteristics; which considers the accuracy and precision in the searching and evaluation of findings about the characteristics of the offender that are productively useful in process of identification of offenders.
  • Linking offences; which considers the possibility of one offender for two or more criminal offences. Therefore, questioning the support evidence and the ways inference was made to reach such conclusion. Indeed, as said above, salience in investigation is very difficult to ensure. Indeed, in the case study above, the offender confessed many other crimes that the police did not link to him and is known to have committed 234 serious crimes.


Like many other professional practices linked to psychology, the IP approach is a technique which depends a lot on the abilities and experience of the profiler. Here he has to discern in the crime scene, the victims’ statement, the available databases and other sources of information the possible leading patterns to link the offender to his crime(s) and to maximize identification processes. Since it is not yet an exact science it still consists of flaws and blurred lines between what is acceptable but it also revealed very useful in numerous cases. Hence reliance on such techniques must be done wisely depending on the context in which it is used.


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