Category Archives: Profiling

Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology: Special Issue on Criminal Profiling

The latest issue of Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology [23(2)] is a Special Issue on Criminal Profiling edited by Craig Bennell. The issue contains several articles on the research basis for criminal profiling, its limitations and applications. In his introduction to the issue, Bennell explains that the papers touch on some of the

…debates [that] are ongoing about what roles profilers should play in criminal investigations, how profiles should be constructed, delivered, and evaluated, whether the contributions made by profilers are valid and, if so, how, and whether there are new, potentially more productive approaches to profiling that could improve upon or even replace the methods that are currently being used.

Though he rightly notes that it’s impossible to do the topic justice in one issue Bennell argues that he has pulled together some examples of research that “will help in some small way to move the profiling field forward”. One problem with this issue, however, is that it only shines a spotlight on research being conducted by members of Bennell’s research lab at Carlton University and Bennell’s current or former associates. As such, it offers a somewhat partial view of the range of research that is and could be done in this area. So I can’t help but agree that this issue represents only a small step forward, but science is generally built on small steps rather than great leaps.

What Bennell has done here is offer a taster of the kind of research that could and should be done to advance this field, including papers on the reliabilility of data that profiles are based on, the theoretical assumptions underlying some forms of profiling, the ways in which readers might interpret profiles and new, potentially fruitful approaches to profiling. There is plenty here that will be of interest to a range of readers including students, more established researchers and practitioners. Contents and further comments after the break.

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Power, Anger, and Sadistic Rapists and other articles in the latest issue of International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

fearThe August 2008 issue of International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology (Vol. 52, No. 4) is out, and contains (as usual) an interesting range of articles.

Here’s one that will be of particlar interest to those interested in psychological profiling of offenders – the theory that particular types of offending behaviour may be associated with particular personality traits. In discussing a Differentiated Model of Offender Personality, Angela Pardue and Bruce A. Arrigo wisely steer clear of the tricky issue of whether the personality characteristics of unknown offenders can be inferred from behavioural and crime scene data (see Alison et al., 2002) but instead explore the relevance of classifying rapists to “effective diagnosis, treatment, and prevention” (p.385). They explain that although several ‘rapist typologies’ exist, such typologies simply describe the type of offending behaviour and

“missing from the literature on rape offenders is any coherent classification schema that describes the personality structure and operation (i.e., profile) of these different, although related, forms of sexual offending (Douglas et al., 2006). Thus, although researchers agree that the tactics and behaviors of rapist types differ, no single taxonomy has been developed that adequately accounts for personality properties” (p.384).

They use a case study method to demonstrated how such a taxonomy might be developed, through a detailed analysis of the offending behaviours and personality characteristics of three well-known offenders: Gilbert Escobedo, Paul Bernardo and Jeffrey Dahmer. They conclude:

Admittedly, the [three case study] analysis is limited in scope and is not generalizable to a larger sample of rapists… [But] the findings from this heuristically oriented case study inquiry suggest that rapists are a heterogeneous group who must be studied as such. Consequently, additional investigations on rapist types and personality composition should be undertaken. This includes the construction of theoretical frameworks and the development of classification taxonomies that lead to empirical analyses (p.397).


Also in this issue of International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology:

  • Ron Langevin and Suzanne Curnoe – Are the Mentally Retarded and Learning Disordered Overrepresented Among Sex Offenders and Paraphilics?
  • Tomer Einat and Amela Einat – Learning Disabilities and Delinquency: A Study of Israeli Prison Inmates
  • Eric L. Sevigny and Phyllis D. Coontz – Patterns of Substance Involvement and Criminal Behavior: A Gender-Based Cluster Analysis of Pennsylvania Arrestees
  • Mally Shechory and Avital Laufer – Social Control Theory and the Connection With Ideological Offenders Among Israeli Youth During the Gaza Disengagement Period
  • Connie Ireland and Bruce Berg – Women in Parole: Respect and Rapport

Photo credit: “Medo / Fear” by xaimex, Creative Commons License

Did a psychological profile go too far?

Did a psychological profile go too far? Via the Associated Press, 6 April:

His life a shambles after he was sent to prison for murder, then set free with new evidence, Timothy Masters paused to reflect on the calamitous series of events that brought him to ruin’s precipice. Almost 21 years passed before DNA evidence proved what he’d been saying all along: He is no killer. He was just a teenage boy with a hobby of drawing gruesome pictures. His sketches of shootings, stabbings, explosions, torture were used as evidence to convict him of killing an aspiring writer in 1987, a conviction that was ultimately overturned.

But the prosecution of Masters raises troubling questions, primarily because it pivoted on the controversial opinions of a board certified forensic psychologist who analyzed the sketches and concluded Masters was guilty. He was convicted without a single shred of direct physical evidence or witnesses.

Karen Franklin has blogged extensively on this case, and her thoughtful and informative posts are well worth a read if you are interested in a case study of profiling-gone-very-wrong. There are links to other press coverage and Karen has uploaded the transcript of forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy’s testimony in this case (access here – pdf). The easiest way to access these is to select the ‘profiling’ tag in her blog – the most recent six posts in this category are about the Masters case. Aspiring profilers: watch and learn.

Quick links – investigations, courtroom, punishment, profiling and more


Quick links from around the web and blogosphere:

Investigations and courtroom :

The Sunday Times (25 Nov) reports on a new facial morphing technique called EvoFIT “that transforms the Photofit faces of criminal suspects into animated caricatures up to seven times more likely to be recognised than standard likenesses”. The system was developed by UK psychologists, one of whom commented that using the new system leads to “…a massive jump in the level of recognition [which] is really reliable”. Lots more information including plenty of downloadable papers on the EvoFIT webpages .

The Eyewitness Identification Reform blog highlights scholarly commentary on the effectiveness of cross-examination for getting at the truth of eyewitness evidence.

Following a detailed and extensively researched analysis, Prof. Epstein [the author of the commentary] concludes that the highly revered truth-seeking tool of cross-examination, while perhaps effective at rooting out liars, is utterly ineffective at uncovering the truth when faced with a witness who is confident, but honestly mistaken about what he or she remembers – which accounts for the majority of cases in which mistaken identification has led to wrongful conviction.

Mo over at Neurophilosophy (a great blog that doesn’t often post on forensic issues) discusses research on creating false memories by doctoring photographs. Participants who saw altered images had different memories of the events in the photographs:

For example, those participants shown the doctored photograph of [a] protest in Rome…in which figures placed in the foreground give the impression of violence, rated the event as being significantly more violent and negative than it actually was. In their comments, they also provided false details, such as conflicts, damages, injuries and casualties that did not appear in the photos and were not documented at the event.

The whole issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology is about ‘cognition and the media’ and includes other papers on the fallability of memory, which will be of use to anyone interested in eyewitness memory.

Anne Reed at the fabulous Deliberations blog reports on research into the Grim Power of Grim Evidence. Apparently “jurors presented with gruesome evidence, such as descriptions or images of torture and mutilation, are up to five times more likely to convict a defendant than jurors not privy to such evidence.”


The ever-interesting Karen Franklin comments on juvenile detention, and starts by posing some simple questions with disturbing answers. Did you know, for instance, that only two nations sentence children to life in prison? According to Karen, they are Israel, with 7 child lifers, and the USA, with an astonishing 2,387 child lifers.

Michael Connolly at Corrections Sentencing offers a detailed discussion of an article which “calls for broad application of empirical psychology to the study of the motive behind punishments”. The article is in press and due to appear in 2008.

  • Reference: Carlsmith, K.M., & Darley, J.M. (in press). Psychological aspects of retributive justice. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, M. Zanna, Ed. (Elsevier, NY, 2008) vol. 41.


The criminal psychopath is the topic of a post at Top Two Inches, and over at the Deception Blog, a comment on research on whether psychopathic liars give themselves away through their verbal behaviour.


Crimson Shadows posts (with permission) the full text of ex-FBI profiler John Douglas’s response to Malcolm Gladwell’s article on profiling that appeared in the New Yorker last month. Douglas argues that Gladwell’s article misrepresents the science and practice of profiling.


Terrific analysis of an fMRI study linking paedophilia to differences in the brain over at the Brain Ethics blog,  critiquing both the method and the interpretation of the results of this study.  In sum “at the least, just because the brain shows a difference, one cannot conclude anything beyond this about causation.”

The BPS Research Digest has also included a couple of forensically relevant posts recently: detecting feigned mental retardation and inter-ethnic violence.

As well as the post on juvenile detention mentioned above, Karen Franklin’s posted a lot of other good stuff recently too, including pointing us towards a Canadian news article on false confessions, commenting on how the UK is considering stricter controls on the use of expert scientific evidence, and a great piece on tracking serial killers in South Africa.

Romeo Vitelli’s Providentia blog reports on an intervention program for young victims of violence, child abuse and brain development, and an usual case of car fetishism.

Photo credit: bigeoino, Creative Commons License

Malcolm Gladwell on criminal profiling

crimescene clover1Malcolm Gladwell casts a skeptical eye over the theory and practice of criminal profiling in his most recent article for the New Yorker (12 Nov). His piece has generated a lot of coverage in the blogs, with some commentary from, among others, Mind Hacks, Karen Franklin and The Frontal Cortex.

I’m all for the ‘debunking’ of the Hollywood myth of the criminal profiler, and I love Gladwell’s work. But I don’t think this article is really much more than a bit of entertainment, and in particular, I’m not sure it really tells us what the FBI profilers do now: Gladwell discusses the work of Robert Ressler, John Douglas and Roy Hazelwood – FBI pioneers of profiling – but they retired more than a decade ago.

It’s been reported that the FBI has taken a more scientific approach to profiling in recent years.  Here’s an extract from an article in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology from 2004:

In recent years, the FBI has begun to work closely with many forensic psychologists–in fact, it employs them. Psychologist Stephen Band, PhD, is the chief of the Behavioral Science Unit, and clinical forensic psychologist Anthony Pinizzotto, PhD, is one of the FBI’s chief scientists. The unit also conducts research with forensic psychologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York…

One of the FBI’s collaborators at John Jay College is Gabrielle Salfati … “Whenever we do research, we try to bring in as many varied points of view as possible,” Pinizzotto says. “Gabrielle Salfati’s expertise on the statistical aspects of evaluating crime scenes is a great contribution.”

More recently, the unit has also begun to collaborate with forensic psychologists at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.–another indication that law enforcement and psychology will continue to work together.

I haven’t been able to find any journal articles based on the research mentioned in the APA article, so it’s difficult to judge how much of an impact this collaboration is having.  Accordingly, it’s difficult to dispel the impression that Gladwell creates that the FBI ‘profilers’ of today use exactly the same methods employed by Douglas, Ressler and Hazelwood.  I just can’t help thinking (hoping?) that things must have moved on since then.


In his article, Gladwell discusses research by University of Liverpool psychologists who tested Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, and Ressler’s (1992) ‘organized / disorganized’ typology of serial killers. The potential flaws in the ‘organized / disorganized’ typology were highlighted by David Canter in his 1994 book Criminal Shadows. The Canter et al (2004) paper putting the typology to empirical test can be downloaded from the Liverpool website here [pdf].

  • Canter, D.V., Alison, L.J., Alison, E. & Wentink, N. (2004). The Organized / Disorganized Tyoplogy of Serial Murder: Myth or Model? Psychology, Public Policy and Law 10(3): 293–320 [pdf]
  • Douglas, J. E., Burgess, A. W., Burgess, A. G., & Ressler, R. K. (1992). Crime classification manual: A standard system for investigating and classifying violent crime. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Also this week, a report that reveals that South African ‘profilers’ have also changed their approach. Is tracking serial killers ‘mumbo jumbo’?, an article in the South African news source Saturday Star (8 Nov), which discusses the establishment of an Investigative Psychology Unit in the South African police service:

The IPU was a trailblazer from the outset. Established by investigative psychologist Micki Pistorius… the unit had an exceptionally high success rate. Pistorius was the first profiler in the country. Her ground-breaking work prompted legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler to acknowledge that she was one of the finest practitioners in her field worldwide. However, her methods raised eyebrows in some quarters, and may have contributed to the common public perception that serial killer profiling involves more “mumbo jumbo” than it does the scientific compilation and analysis of data… After Pistorius’s departure, …Gerrard Labuschagne was appointed head of the Investigative Psychology Unit of the SAPS. He has instituted far-reaching changes in the way the unit operates. The IPU recently engaged in collaborative research with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, on the topic of serial murders in South Africa. To date this is the largest-scale research project on serial murders in the world.

Photo credit: clover_1, Creative Commons Licence

New issue: Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23(3)


The August 2007 issue of Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23(3) is a special issue on racial profiling. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • Profiles of Injustice: The Theory and Practice of Racial Profiling – Zina T. McGee
  • Racial Profiling and the Courts: An Empirical Analysis of Federal Litigation, 1991 to 2006 – Shaun L. Gabbidon, Lakiesha N. Marzette, and Steven A. Peterson
  • Police Discourse on Racial Profiling – Karen S. Glover
  • Racial Profiling and Postmodern Society: Police Responsiveness, Image Maintenance, and the Left Flank of Police Legitimacy – Kirk Miller
  • Legislative and Court Decisions That Promulgated Racial Profiling: A Sociohistorical Perspective – Larry D. Stokes
  • Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling – Kelly Welch

New issue: Aggression and Violent Behavior – special issue on Crime Classification and Offender Typologies


The Sept-Oct 2007 issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior 12(5) is a special issue on Crime Classification and Offender Typologies.

Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • New directions in offender typology design, development, and implementation: Can we balance risk, treatment and control? – James M. Byrne and Albert R. Roberts
  • Recidivism among four types of homicide offenders: An exploratory analysis of 336 homicide offenders in New Jersey – Albert R. Roberts, Kristen M. Zgoba and Shahid M. Shahidullah
  • Can we profile sex offenders? A review of sex offender typologies – Gina Robertiello and Karen J. Terry
  • Battered women versus male batterer typologies: Same or different based on evidence-based studies? – Kimberly Bender and Albert R. Roberts
  • In search of the “Tossed Salad Man” (and others involved in prison violence): New strategies for predicting and controlling violence in prison – James Byrne and Don Hummer
  • Mental illness and violence: A brief review of research and assessment strategies – Andrew Harris and Arthur J. Lurigio
  • Examining the link between institutional and community violence: Toward a new cultural paradigm – James M. Byrne and Jacob Stowell
  • Displaced, dispossessed, or lawless? Examining the link between ethnicity, immigration, and violence – Jacob I. Stowell and Ramiro Martinez Jr.
  • Sex offenders of the elderly: Classification by motive, typology, and predictors of severity of crime – Ann Wolbert Burgess, Michael Lamport Commons, Mark E. Safarik, Ruthann Rockwell Looper and Sara Nora Ross
  • When murder is not enough: Toward a new definition of community violence – Melanie-Angela Neuilly

New issue: Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 4(1)


The January 2007 issue of Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 4(1) has only just gone online. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • Crime behaviours and distance travelled in homicides and rapes – Pekka Santtila, Manne Laukkanen, Angelo Zappalà
  • From marine ecology to crime analysis: Improving the detection of serial sexual offences using a taxonomic similarity measure – Jessica Woodhams, Tim D. Grant, Andrew R. G. Price
  • Offender and crime characteristics of female serial arsonists in Japan – Taeko Wachi, Kazumi Watanabe, Kaeko Yokota, Mamoru Suzuki, Maki Hoshino, Atsushi Sato, Goro Fujita
  • National and regional reviews of investigative and forensic psychology – David Canter
  • Forensic psychology in the Czech republic – Veronika Anna Polienská

New issue: Psychology, Crime & Law, 13(3)


Psychology, Crime & Law, 13(3), June 2007 , is now online. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

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Contents include:

  • The education of jury members: Influences on the determinations of child witnesses – Crissa Sumner-Armstrong; Peter A. Newcombe
  • Vehicle-related crime and the gender gap – Claire Corbett
  • The features of a good offender treatment programme manual: A Delphi survey of experts – Anna McCulloch; Mary McMurran
  • The relationships between alcohol-aggression proneness, general alcohol expectancies, hazardous drinking, and alcohol-related violence in adult male prisoners – Mary McMurran
  • Stereotyping, congruence and presentation order: Interpretative biases in utilizing offender profiles – Benjamin C. Marshall; Laurence J. Alison
  • Are old witnesses always poorer witnesses? Identification accuracy, context reinstatement, own-age bias – Rachel A. Wilcock; Ray Bull; Aldert Vrij
  • Influences of accent and ethnic background on perceptions of eyewitness testimony – Lara Frumkin

Two approaches to predicting crime

psychicsScary news from Cincinnati, as a group of ‘community organisers and government officials’ draws up a list of 1500 ‘most dangerous’ criminals with ‘a propensity to commit murder and other acts of violence’. The Cincinnati Enquirer (23 April) reports:

[…] The group, including Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, wants police and other agencies to use the list to prevent violent crime. They plan to give the list to police, probation officials, community groups and others.

“We will target and focus on the 1,500 most dangerous criminals walking the streets of Cincinnati,” said city council candidate Charlie Winburn, one of the organizers. “This will reduce the homicide rate, reduce the number of people shot on the streets and reduce the number of shots fired. Our next homicide will probably come from this list.”

[…] [School board member and council candidate Melanie Bates] said this is a new way to collect the information that will be more useful to police.

“We’re criminal profiling,” she said, “and statistically saying who has the potential to kill. These people have the criminal profile for committing homicide.”

Some are understandably alarmed at this development, e.g., civil rights lawyer Robert Newman, quoted as saying:

“I think it’s very unfortunate that they’re thinking about doing this. There’s no doubt that there are predictors to indicate someone might commit a crime […] but they can’t be 100 percent accurate, and it’s so dangerous. …”

And in an editorial comment the following day, the Cincinnati Enquirer argued that a ‘plan to identify “likely killers” in Cincinnati ought to set off alarm bells among those who favor the rule of law and the presumption of innocence’.

Somewhat more scientific are the efforts of Simon Fraser University criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham, who have been developing methods of predicting crime ‘hot-spots’ This from the Vancouver Sun (24 April):

Husband-and-wife SFU professors Patricia and Paul Brantingham plan to crunch data that includes RCMP crime stats, transportation routes and even shopping mall hours to advise police and municipalities about potential crime hot spots.

“You take the criminal event data, other information about how a city is built, the road networks and other information about other activities in a city, and you blend them together,” Patricia Brantingham said in an interview. “And with that sort of information, you are able to produce much clearer models of where crimes occur and what kind of crime patterns to expect.”

The Brantinghams will use a $5-million donation of new technology from IBM to create a crime prevention and analysis lab at SFU to link research on offenders’ behaviours with the commuting, shopping and living habits of residents to understand the future location, frequency and severity of crime.

See also:

Photo credit: Living in Monrovia, Creative Commons License