Offender Profiling (notes)

A summary of the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach to offender profiling as well as details in comparison and statistics from Canter and Heritage, and Holmes.

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Offender profiling
Aims of offender profiling: to help to identify, apprehend and convict unknown offenders by
providing details of social (e.g. job and marital status), physical (e.g. age or race) and mental (e.g. IQ, education)
factors of the criminal. The profiling process gives predictions of when, where and against whom they are likely to
commit their next offences (if any) and any possible interview strategies to elicit confessions or information of the
The American `TopDown' Approach: pioneered by FBIs, the approach relies strongly on the creation of
general typologies (stereotypes) of criminals based on interviews with criminals and impressions of
past crime scenes. It also relies on the intuitive analysis of data based on personal experience
with law enforcement and matching a particular type of criminal to that particular type of crime. Douglas and Olshaker
(1995) gained insights between the organised criminal and the disorganised criminal by interviewing 36 serial murderers.
Organised offenders were often above average intelligence, in skilled work and socially/sexually competent and their crimes
were often planned (controlled in execution and removing evidence), whereas disorganised offenders, were below
average intelligence, in unskilled work and lived alone, tended to commit crimes spontaneously, had little control and left
evidence at the crime scene.
The British `BottomUp' Approach: pioneered by psychologists such as Canter and Britton, the
approach relies on building up individualistic profiles through the identification of
specific associations between particular characteristics of the offence and the
offender. It also focuses on the use of scientific statistical analysis and the
application of psychological principles and also finding out what kind of criminal
behaviours were associated together and what might be the work of the same criminal.
Canter uses environmental concepts like mental maps to suggest where the criminal is located. Canter's approach seeks
to make the process of profiling scientifically explicit rather than intuitive.
Points of Comparison in Techniques: the distinctions between the US and British approaches mostly appear to concern their
different emphasis on methodology resulting from their different backgrounds and access to data and hide many common
assumptions, for example:
Use of typologies ­ Canter and Heritage (1990) built up their own typologies, e.g. those based on analysis of rapes
that involve the victim as a person, object or vehicle.
The offender consistency hypothesis ­ both approaches will assume that criminal behaviour (especially extreme)
will reflect characteristics that are typical of that person and will remain relatively consistent across offences.
Evolution of criminal careers ­ both approaches propose that criminals adjust their modus operandi (MO) as a
result of experience, forensic awareness etc., but also suggest that there are fundamental motivations or needs
that will remain more static.
Similar strengths and weaknesses ­ both approaches had had highprofile, spectacular successes that have
drawn attention away from profiling failures. Studies revealed that both approaches have similar low rate of
success. Holmes (1989) reported that only 17% of FBI profiles contributed to arrests while Copson and Holloway
(1997) found British detectives believe UK profiles helped to solve 16% of cases they were used in.
Ranges of application ­ both approaches have been applied to a range of crimes such as burglary, arson,
blackmail, hostagetaking etc.


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