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What Is Criminal Profiling and What Is Its Role in Law Enforcement?

Profilers looking at camera.

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With the popularity of psychological TV crime thrillers such as Mindhunter and many others, people may wonder what criminal profiling is and how accurately it’s portrayed on television. Beginning with high profile cases such as the “Mad Bomber” — where the psychiatrist and criminologist James A. Brussel created a profile to help identify the bomber as George Metesky — the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit developed advanced techniques and databases that led to arrests of notorious serial killers such as Ted Bundy.

In practice, criminal profilers are highly trained experts who specialize in identifying the perpetrators behind serious crimes. Using techniques such as extensive knowledge of behavior and statistical probability, profilers work in tandem with forensics teams and other members of law enforcement to apprehend suspects. For those interested in a career in law enforcement, programs and certificates in criminal justice, forensic sciences, and crime analysis can allow officers to pursue these specialized roles.

The History of Criminal Profiling

As far back as the late 19th century, investigators used psychology to understand and attempt to apprehend infamous killers such as Jack the Ripper. In those days however, law enforcement often lacked reliable information to follow up on, relying instead on witness testimony and conclusions they could draw from victims and crime scenes. Since those rudimentary examinations, the tools and techniques available to law enforcement officers have evolved significantly, including advances in technology and improvements in forensic science.

Pioneers such as former FBI Special Agent John Edward Douglas were able to master and develop a criminal profiling methodology that is still in use today. By interviewing serial killers, terrorists and other violent criminals, Douglas was able to research the psychopathologies and behavioral abnormalities of serious criminals, beginning the process of identifying patterns and correlating behaviors.

The Advancement of Criminal Profiling

Using modern technology and databases such as the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), today’s investigators can link cases and evidence that may have previously been overlooked. What is involved in criminal profiling has changed significantly, enabling the FBI to establish a more reliable standard of evidence-based profiling. By working with members of law enforcement and forensic scientists, profilers are able to better understand and analyze psychological, behavioral and other angles of a case.

Criminal Profiling’s Role in Law Enforcement

The question “why?” is at the heart of any criminal investigation. In many violent crimes, the victim is often somehow related to or acquainted with their attacker. But what often sets criminals such as serial killers or terrorists apart is their motive. It is not specific to the victim, but rather to the crime itself. By carefully studying patterns of behavior, profilers can formulate theories of when and how a criminal will act next, facilitating their apprehension before they commit another crime.

Criminal Profilers in Action

Profilers are especially effective in cases involving hostage takers, rapists, arsonists, sexual murders and the identification of writers of threatening letters. By using psychology, profilers are better able to predict the behaviors of these criminals. What is unique to criminal profiling is that many of these crimes do not follow common patterns or motives, making perpetrators less predictable and more difficult to apprehend.

The examination of methodology, criminal signature and forensic connections aid in the creation of a criminal profile by identifying patterns of behavior. Studying the psychology behind a crime allows profilers to establish probable cause for search warrants and assist detectives in compiling evidence for their legal case. Furthermore, the understanding of criminal behavior and the connections between details of a crime produce a basis on which criminal profilers can provide testimony in court as expert witnesses.

Criminal Profilers and Cybercrime

In the early days of criminal profiling, the technology to commit cybercrime had not yet been invented. Today however, cybercrime has become one of the fastest growing types of illegal activity and greatest threats to national security, making the skills and knowledge to address it a vital focus in current training programs. Combining the coordination of technological skills and the implementation of traditional core methodologies, profilers can aid in the apprehension of cyber criminals.

Criminal Profilers Working in Law Enforcement

What is unique about criminal profiling is that practitioners can serve as intermediaries between organizations in law enforcement. While they are not a substitute for skilled detective work, profilers can provide detectives with interrogation techniques or a profile of a suspect. In local and state law enforcement, profilers can also be hired as detectives or criminal investigators, assisting in cases of multijurisdictional scope and facilitating the collection of evidence.

Criminal Profilers in Federal Agencies

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) employ profilers who have undergone specialized training to address recurring or unusual violent crimes. Practicing criminal investigative analysis, profilers provide behavioral-based operational support to partner agencies. As technical experts in the field, they can build a profile by conducting an examination, evaluation and interpretation of a crime, as well as providing technical training, research and intelligence reports.

Requirements for federal criminal profilers include a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as criminal justice or psychology and completion of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) training program. Prior to applying, applicants typically have logged a minimum of 7 to 15 years of investigative experience to understand and properly integrate behavior into law enforcement strategy. After completing the program, candidates gain experience through on-the-job training, working alongside experts on active cases.

Law Enforcement and Profiling in Tandem

Building an accurate criminal profile involves the thorough examination of a crime scene to identify notable psychological traits of the suspect such as psychopathologies, behavioral patterns or demographic variations. Understanding what is behind criminal profiling takes many years of experience and training, making the available roles in profiling both limited and highly competitive. Fortunately for those inspired by profiling, there are several other avenues in criminal justice, psychology or forensics available.

Forensic Sciences and Profiling

Without forensic sciences to support criminal profiling, it would be nearly impossible to build an evidence-based case to argue effectively in court. While a profile can aid forensics teams to locate or give context to evidence, it is the evidence itself, collected by forensic scientists, that becomes the backbone of a case. Forensic science and digital forensics professionals have the advanced technological skills to assist in prosecuting both traditional crimes and cybercriminal activity.

Profiling and Criminal Justice

With a thorough understanding of the nature of crime, criminal justice theory, and an in-depth knowledge of how the judicial system works, experts in criminal justice can play an important role at both the local and federal level. Working in tandem with law enforcement agencies, criminal profilers, and federal representatives, leaders in criminal justice can act as a voice for fairness, progressive growth and safety in our justice system.

Law Enforcement and Psychology

Psychology and law enforcement often work hand in hand, in dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness, understanding the motivation behind criminal activity and providing care or resources to the individuals that need them. From building an effective profile to safely detaining a criminal suffering from mental illness or acting as the psychiatric professional that aids in the care of those individuals, psychology plays a critical role in justice and criminal justice reform.

Prepare for a Career in Law Enforcement

Dedicated to understanding the “why?” behind dangerous crimes, profilers are passionate and talented members of law enforcement and federal agencies and an essential component to solving some of the most challenging and infamous cases. From forensic scientists to law enforcement officers and criminal justice experts, there are a variety of exciting opportunities open to those who want to act as a voice for change and make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Designed with flexibility and excellence in mind, the criminal justice programs at UCF Online, such as the master’s in digital forensics and master’s in forensic science, are dedicated to providing a high quality education to the next generation of criminal justice leaders. Whether you are passionate about pursuing forensic sciences and juvenile justice, or inspired by the crime analysis and criminal profiling certificate programs, UCF Online is committed to empowering you with a wide variety of specialized skills.

Discover how you can make a difference as a criminal justice graduate.