Criminal profilers examine the details of the crime and apply their knowledge
of various fields, especially psychology and sociology, to develop a general
description of the perpetrator.
Unlike detectives, they don't single out specific suspects. Ron MacKay
is a criminal profiler for a police force. "You don't describe a person. You
describe a personality," he says.
"Criminal profiling is the natural byproduct of a criminal investigation,"
says Brent Turvey. He is the author of a textbook on criminal profiling.
"A criminal investigator is interested in establishing the facts, determining
if there has been a crime, and who is responsible for the crime. A criminal
profiler is a specialist in the 'who' aspect of the investigation."
Notwithstanding its current celebrity status, "criminal profiling isn't
considered a career by itself," says Turvey. "Rather, it is a multidisciplinary
skill that is nurtured once an individual becomes proficient with other requisite
skills, knowledge and abilities."
Some profilers, like Turvey, work in crime reconstruction. Others double
as psychologists, forensic scientists, hostage negotiators or professors.
North America's leading female profiler, Candice Skrapec, teaches criminology
at California State University in Fresno.
Part-time profilers like Turvey and Skrapec work as consultants for the
police, prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. Typically, they will be
called in to consult on violent crimes, such as arson, rape and murder.
The handful of people who do work exclusively as criminal profilers tend
to work within law enforcement. The FBI has a famous behavioral sciences unit
called the Investigative Support Unit.
Geographic profiling is a new trend. It uses aerial photos, motor vehicle
licensing, letters, census data and other records to try to pin down offenders
by location, rather than type.
"A criminal profiler is usually brought into a crime that has some element
of violence or threat of violence," Skrapec says, "whereas geographic profiling
can be used for all sorts of crimes."
One day, she hopes, criminal profiling might be used to stop crimes before
they occur, rather than after the fact. In recent years, science has made
great advances in understanding the brain and the neurological triggers that
prompt some people to kill.
"Maybe we can see the flashing red lights, or even yellow lights: that
this is an individual that appears to have something very different happening."
Unfortunately, she admits, "That's still a long ways away."
To Skrapec, "the people doing the best profiling are the good cops, the
investigators on the street, who probably don't even call themselves profilers.
There's been a lot of misinformation spread."
Turvey agrees that Hollywood has created a false image of profilers, which
some people unwisely attempt to live up to. "Criminal profiling, it must be
remembered, is one tool, not the only tool."
Done properly, though, it can be an effective one. Statistics cited by
MacKay show that profiles match the known characteristics of the perpetrator
about 75 percent of the time.