The Dubious Art of Criminal Profiling

Magnifying glass and fingerprint depicting criminal profiling

For several decades now, we have been seeing crime TV shows depict a scene where detectives “read” a murder scene. They make predictions about how old the killer is, where he lives, what he likes, and how he thinks.

When it inevitably turns out to be accurate, viewers aren’t surprised. After all, the science of behavioral analysis or criminal profiling has been around for 40 plus years.

It’s been used to catch numerous serial killers, right?

Maybe not. While crime scene analysis and criminal predictions are interesting and compelling on TV shows, it remains to be seen whether much, if anything, is really being predicted.

Dangerous Minds

In the fascinating article, Dangerous Minds, in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the first time was used to pinpoint the culprit of a series of crimes.

In 1956, New York City police consulted a psychiatrist by the name of James Brussel to help them find the identity of a man who was planting bombs in public places around the city.

According to Brussel, he was accurate about the identity of the man down to the last detail. The man would be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned. While this did turn out to be true, Brussel lead police on a wild goose chase to try to find the man.

The real heroine was a woman named Alice Kelly who had been tasked with going through the past employment files of Con Edison – the company at which the bombings were directed. She finally found a file from a disgruntled ex-employee of Con Edison.

That ex-employee had threatened to “take justice in my own hands.”

It does seem amazing that Brussel predicted the man would be wearing a double-breasted suit. In addition, he was – or at least he changed into one to be taken to the police station. However, what use is that, really?

The FBI and Criminal Profiling

The FBI, nevertheless, founded their behavioral science unit in 1972. It has made the criminal profile an accepted part of many investigations.

You know the scene. Detectives stand in front of a blackboard looking at crime scene photos and other information.

A psychologist comes in with a speech about the killer’s motives, his employment history, where he lives, how he feels about women, etc. Somehow everything the psychologist says turns out to be true.

It was to this unit that detectives from Wichita appealed in 1984 when the BTK killer had been active for ten years and was terrorizing the town. They were no closer to finding him than they had ever been.

The BTK Killer

Dennis Rader styled himself the BTK killer. It stands for “bind, torture, kill.” He was the one who enabled himself to get caught though. After a long lull, he began to try to communicate with police.

In one of his packages, he included a floppy disk that had data on it which eventually helped police to locate him. Once they thought they had his identity, they tested the small amount of DNA evidence they had saved since 1974 against Rader’s daughter’s Pap smear on file at a university.

It was police tracking down leads and keeping lines of communication open that caught Dennis Rader.

What was his profile? The one they went to Quantico to get? Some of it was true and some of it wasn’t, just like any good guess.

What is fascinating about this story?

Dennis Rader, psychopath and murderer of numerous people, didn’t believe police would lie to him in order to catch him. He thought they wanted the game of cat and mouse to go on forever. However, that is beside the point.

Here is an interesting statistic. In the 1990s in Britain, the British Home Office decided to test the American theory that criminal profiling leads to arrests. They analyzed 184 crimes to see how many times it worked.

It was only five times. That’s 2.7% of the time.


Criminal profiling makes for interesting television and can sometimes give a few accurate details about the criminal police are looking for. However, most cases are solved by old-fashioned detective work. Don’t forget, this includes lying when police feel the need.

If you have been charged with for a crime you did not commit, it is critical that you consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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