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.

The contents include:

  • Investigating the Reliability of the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS) Crime Report – Melissa M. Martineau, Shevaun Corey
  • A Failure to Find Empirical Support for the Homology Assumption in Criminal Profiling – Brandy Doan, Brent Snook
  • The False Recognition Effect in Criminal Profiling – Craig Bennell, Rebecca Mugford, Alyssa Taylor, Sarah Bloomfield, Catherine M. Wilson
  • Body Disposal Patterns of Sexual Murderers: Implications for Offender Profiling – Eric Beauregard, Jessica Field
  • Taming the Beast: The UK Approach to the Management of Behavioral Investigative Advice – Lee Rainbow

I’ve only had time to skim some of the articles in this issue, but I was particularly taken with experienced Behavioural Investigative Advisor Lee Rainbow’s ‘future challenges’ section in his article on the provision of behavioural investigative advice in the UK. Rainbow explains in detail how behavioural advice is used in police investigations in the UK and summarises the various steps taken in the last decade to put such advice on a scientific and professional footing, including strict accreditation standards for individuals offering behavioural investigative advice and systematic evaluation of their reports. But Rainbow argues that the first challenge for the future is addressing a growing misconception that ‘profiling’ skills are widespread and easy to obtain, a misconception that has been created by “the expansion and availability of post-graduate forensic psychology courses, and courses more specifically focussing on some form of ‘profiling’ ”. Rainbow goes on to suggest that this

has created a situation where individuals within the police service itself are exploiting the opportunity to apply the principles of behavioral science to the investigative process, but for which the appropriate quality assurance mechanisms could be lacking. Such ambiguous provision of support must be addressed to arrest the potential dilution and undermining of the current high standards of the service.

A second, and Rainbow suggests, more significant challenge

results from the intense media interest in such activity. Media coverage of any major crime story in the UK is almost exclusively accompanied by a psychologist or “profiler” waxing lyrically about the offender’s likely characteristics, personality, psychopathology and the resulting recommended investigative actions. Whilst such observations are a somewhat inevitable product of both the popular fascination of “getting inside the mind of the killer” and 24 hour news scheduling, the apparent readiness with which some individuals feel compelled to feed such appetites may be viewed as contrary to expected levels of professionalism.

As longtime readers will know, psychologists and psychiatrists offering speculative comments on high-profile cases is something I (and many others) have criticised before. As Rainbow points out:

These individuals should be acutely aware from experience that the information available within the public domain during investigations is a deliberately restricted subset of the known facts in the case. To base speculation on such limited information demonstrates a disregard for expected standards of scientific integrity.