Offender profiling - Forensic psychology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Offender profiling
Forensic psychology


Profiling describes what type of person may have committed a crime. The key questions are: What happened at the crime scene? Who might have committed the crime? What kind of personality might they have? Organised offenders are intelligent and socially competent, with an orderly approach to life that is reflected in the way they commit crimes. Disorganised offenders are the opposite. The top-down approach uses crime scene analysis to create profiles and involves a 7-stage process:

1 Murder type — is it an isolated case or a serial killing?

2 Primary intent — was the crime premeditated or spontaneous?

3 Victim risk — how vulnerable was the victim?

4 Offender risk — how much risk did the offender take in committing the crime?

5 Escalation — is the crime more serious than previous offences?

6 Time factors — what time of day did the crime occur?

7 Location factors — where did the crime occur?

The bottom-up approach builds profiles from data gained from similar crimes, like investigative psychology, based on five assumptions: (i) interpersonal coherence — that criminals exhibit consistent behaviour; (ii) time and place — where and when crimes are committed; (iii) criminal characteristics — placing criminals into categories; (iv) criminal career — how experienced criminals are; (v) forensic awareness — to what extent crime scenes have been tidied up. Geographical profiling examines location and timing aspects of crimes to discern the living habits of offenders.


Fig 16.1 Arthur Shawcross: offender profiling helped to convict him of murder

Focal study

McCrary & Grant (1990) reported on the case study of Arthur Shawcross who, having served 15 years for murdering two children, murdered 11 prostitutes between 1988 and 1990. The profilers visited crime scenes and examined case files to decide the murderer was white, male, married, had a mental age of late 20s/early 30s, was a previous offender of violent crimes, was low paid, drove a cheap car, lived near the crime scenes and was a hunter. The profilers predicted the offender would return to a crime scene to mutilate a body, so a murdered body should be left in place under surveillance. This was done and the offender was arrested. The profile proved to be accurate and although Shawcross pleaded not guilty due to insanity, he was sentenced to a 250-year jail sentence.


• Pinizzoto (1984) identified that of 192 requests of criminal profiles, only 17 per cent were actually useful for identifying the suspects. However, the same research showed that 77 per cent of the respondents indicated that profiles had assisted them to focus on the investigations.

• Snook et al. (2008) reported that the number of cases using profiling to investigate a crime had increased, which suggests police officers are starting to recognise its credibility and usefulness.

• Shanahan (2008) found the responses to questionnaires sent out by the Criminal Investigation Department used to evaluate the effectiveness of the criminal profiling in the department were mainly negative. This was only when it had not worked effectively however, and Shanahan found that most police officers still expressed confidence in criminal profiling and its potential to help them.

Positive evaluation

Image The top-down approach is best used for violent crimes, such as murder and rape, where it has proven to be reasonably effective in drawing up profiles of likely suspects.

Image The bottom-up approach of investigative psychology is based upon research evidence and statistical likelihood, which makes it more scientific than the top-down approach. The use of statistics removes intuition (intelligent guess-work) from profiling, making it more reliable.

Image Geographical profiling helps locate offenders of different crimes. It can be used to locate the likely home of burglars as they often concentrate their crimes not far from where they live. This means the method is applicable across many different types of crime.

Negative evaluation

Image There is a lack of theoretical foundation to the top-down approach, which reduces its credibility. Indeed, it can be argued to rely more on guess-work than science, with the personal opinions and emotions of profilers clouding their judgement.

Image Locations are important for the identification of offenders, but there are other considerations that need to be made, such as their psychological characteristics. Geographical profiling concentrates on location, which could miss important information if used in isolation.

Image The bottom-up approach requires statistical information from previous similar crimes, which is not always easy to gather. Problems in measuring crime also reduce the effectiveness of the method.

Practical application

The main application of profiling is in helping the police to focus their inquiries when attempting to identify the perpetrators of crimes in a much more targeted way, so that they can be arrested before committing more offences.