Forensic psychology - defining crime and offender profiling

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Defining crime

Legal definition 1: Something which is against the criminal law (Croall 1988)

Legal definition 2: A wrong to society involving the breach of a legal rule (Williams 1991)

Normative definition: Acts which cause offence to moral norms or values held by society, such as religious beliefs.

A meaning of crime cannot be isolated from the various meanings attached to it. Social scientists would therefore describe the meaning of crime as a social construction.

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Problems with defining crime

The law: Different countries have different laws; therefore what constitutes a crime in one country may not be illegal in another (eg, adultery)

Politics: The government have the power to criminalise and decriminalise certain acts; therefore politicians have the authority to determine which behaviours are illegal and which are legal (eg, smoking ban)

History: Laws are era dependant, and so what is illegal in one decade or century, may not be in another (eg, witchhunts)

Social construction: The meaning of crime is a social construction, what constitutes a crime is dependant upping the perception you are approaching it from; legal (acts that break the law), or normative (acts that breach society's rules) (eg, picking money up off the floor)

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Ways of measuring crime - official statistics

Official statistics: All crimes are reported to and recorded by various government agencies in the official figures.

Advantages - Relatively cheap and easy to get a hold of, produced annually and some statistics are very accurate.

Disadvantages - Lacks validity. There is also an under reporting of certain crimes due to fear or embarrassment, or the perpetrator being a family member, resulting in unreliable statistics and it does not show the dark figure of crime. There may be under recording due to police recording practices and the police's perception on how bad a crime is.

Farmington and Dowds (1985) found more crimes occurred in Nottinghamshire than other similar counties. Their police were found to have different crime recording practises, more likely recording property offences of £10 or less, and so having a higher official crime rate. This shows that the crime rates are reliant on how the police record offences, and their viewpoint on what is serious and what is trivial.

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Ways of measuring crime - self report studies

Self report studies: Where individuals report all crimes that they have committed that the police are unaware of from a list.

Advantages - If these figures are accurate, they can provide addition data and can be useful in determining how many people are responsible for each crime committed, and if one individual has committed many crimes. Self report studies are more likely than official stats to measure which types of offenders are more likely to be convicted.

Disadvantages - It may be unreliable as measures are usually conducted on young criminals, who may exaggerate, may be too embarrassed or may be unable to remember what happened. The studies may also ignore middle class crimes and may uncover trivial cases as oppose to the more serious. Also, researchers may have a biased selection of interviewees - researchers may be unable to interview the more dangerous offenders, or the rich or powerful, excluding them from areas of crime such as corporate crime.

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Ways of measuring crime - victim surveys

Victim surveys: A random sample of a population report any crime experienced in the last year - the British Crime Survey (BCS) is an example of this. 

Advantages - Shows significantly higher figures, is large scale with a random selection of people and displays representative data. It provides a more accurate picture of crime than official stats, as it includes crime that haven't been reported to the police (the dark figure of crime.) There are many reasons why a 'dark figure of crime' may arise:

  • the general public regards the crime as being too trivial
  • individuals may be unaware that they are victims of crime
  • individuals may fear a revenge attack if they name the offender
  • individuals may lack confidence in the police, considering they are too busy with more serious crimes
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Victim surveys (2)

Therefore, victim surveys and the use of a deviance amplification (where media campaigns highlight the incidence of particular crimes create a moral panic - causing the public to report the crime more) help to uncover this dark figure of crime. It is also anonymous, and so victims are more likely to report crime - the BCS found an increase of 5% in violent crimes overall.

Disadvantages - They rely on accuracy of recall and retrospective reporting that may be inaccurate. Telescoping (misspecification of when a crime occured) may also affect the validity of victimisation studies and can lead to over recording. May underrepresent the true figure of crime as many items on the questionnaires cite juvenile crime and shed little light on serious adult crime. Interviewees may also be bias due to the selection of offences and they may exclude certain areas of crime such as corporate crime.

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Offender profiling

Offender profiling is the top down approach of the collection of empirical data in order to build up a picture of the characteristics of those involved in a certain type of crime. Douglas and Burgess stated, in 1986, that offender profiling is 'an investigative technique by which to identify the major personality and behavioural characteristics of the offender based upon analysis of the crimes committed'.

Offender profilers looks at:

  • fingerprints
  • blood stains
  • shoe prints
  • DNA evidence
  • the type of victim
  • the type of crime
  • the location
  • the time of crime
  • what is taken/ left behind
  • the special features of the crime
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Offender profiling (2)

Profiles are more commonly used for serious offences, such as ****, murder, arson and kidnapping. A criminal will not change their normal behaviour when they commit a crime. This is known as criminal consistency.

A criminal can therefore be tracked over many crimes, as each type the criminal leaves behind a trace of themselves. The basic assumption is that the offenders behaviour at the crime scene reflects something about them as a person. It leaves a psychological fingerprint, particularly where there is a pattern over consistent crimes. Eg, tying a victim up could suggest a need for control.

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The typology (FBI) approach

These crime scene characteristics can be used to determine certain personality traits: 'organised' or 'disorganised' offenders. Hazelwood states that an organised offender's crime scene characteristics usually include:

  • use of restraints
  • uses of a vehicle
  • none or little evidence left at the scene
  • victim is a stranger
  • hidden body
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Organised offenders

These characteristics usually refer to a person with a likely personality that's:

  • above average IQ
  • is sexually and socially competent
  • lives with a partner
  • experiences anger or depression at time of attack
  • perhaps follows crime in the media
  • and may return to the crime scene
  • travels to commit crime
  • anticipates police questioning
  • intelligent and plans activities
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Disorganised crime scene characteristics

A disorganised offender's crime scene usually include:

  • sloppy crime scene
  • spontaneous crime
  • evidence present
  • shows no planning
  • whatever weapon can be found (eg, a rock)
  • attack quick and brutal
  • victim known to killer
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Disorganised offenders

Their likely personality is usually:

  • socially immature
  • sexually inhibited
  • harsh childhood discipline
  • lives alone
  • knows victim
  • shows no interest in the media
  • doesn't change their lifestyle as a result of the killing
  • below average IQ
  • has a severe form of mental illness
  • lives near to the crime scene
  • has been physically or sexually abused
  • frightened or confused at time of attack
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Typology approach Ao2 - Canter et al

Canter et al wanted to investigate the validity of the organised/ disorganised distinction. They used information from 100 murders by 100 serial killers in America, looking for characteristics typical of either organised or disorganised offenders.

They found evidence of a subset of organised characteristics in most serial killers, including the body being left in an isolated spot and the use of restraint.

Disorganised characteristics were much lower and didn't occur together often enough to be considered a type. They concluded there was no clear distinction between organised and disorganised offenders and being organised is a characteristic of serial killers in general.

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Typology approach Ao2

  • personality theory suggests that behaviour is not consistent across different situations which conflicts the idea of typology (Alison et al 2002)
  • the interviews used to establish the two types were conducted with a very limited sample, therefore generalisation to the wider population shouldn't be made
  • the distinction is an over simplification and a third category was later added compiling of a 'mixed' offender to take into account those that didn't fit into either organised or disoganised.
  • other classification systems such as that of Jenkins (1988) suggest two categories of serial murderers, the respectable type and the predictable type. Also Holmes and De Burger (1988) propose 6 types that could be defined according to the combination of 14 characteristics. He noted predictable or respectable types depended on the presence or absence of violent criminal history and whether alcohol abuse features in day to day life.
  • Canter et al (2004) found no evidence of an organised subset of features common to most serial killers.
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The investigative approach

In the UK, most offender profiling is based on the investigative approach and the work of David Canter, whose research led to the capture of the 'railway ******' John Duffy in 1986. His work is based on the five aspects of the interaction between the victim and offender, known as the five factor model.

The five factors consist of:

  • Interpersonal coherence
  • significance of time and place
  • Criminal characteristics
  • Criminal career
  • Forensic awareness
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Interpersonal coherence

Refers to whether a variation in criminal activity will relate to variations in the way in which the offender deals with others in non criminal situations.

It's assumed that offenders deal with their victims similarly to how they deal with people in everyday life. It's further assumed that victims may represent significant other people in the life of an offender, outside the criminal event.

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Significance of time and place

May provide the analyst with info on offender mobility and therefore guide interferences of likely residential location.

As the time and place of the event is largely chosen by the offender, this may display how the offender views their surroundings, and also may be heavily influenced by how they view their own schedule.

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Criminal characteristics

Used to allow researchers to develop subsystems for the classification of offender groups which may be used to provide characteristics to investigators tht are likely to be possessed by the perpetrator in the current crime (eg, the FBI approach.)

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Criminal career

Simply refers to an assessment that is made to determine whether the offender may have engaged in criminal activity in the past, and which kind of activity this may have been.

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Forensic awareness

Is any evidence that an offender has knowledge of police techniques and procedures relating to evidence collection. It may include, but isn't limited to, the wearing of gloves, a condom, or the removal of anything contaminated with their body fluids.

An assessment of the criminal career may indicate the offenders skill in getting him into the premises, which may be suggestive of previous offences in bugulary, or the bathing of the victim afterwards could suggest it isn't their first sexual assault

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The circle theory

Canter also developed circle theory, compiling of a marauder and commuter hypothesis.

The marauder model assumes the offender will 'strike out' from their home base, whereas the commuter model assumes the offender will a travel a distance from their home before engaging in crime.

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Geographical profiling

This is a method used in the UK, and Canter is the main proponent and argues its heavily built on psychological theory, eg schemas mental mapping (their own perspective of an area). The method generalises from the locations of linked crime scenes to the likely home/work/ social base of the offender.

The assumption is that most offender like to operate in areas they know well - many offenders have a crime range of as little as 2 miles (Canter and Gregory 1994).

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Geographical profiling - mental schemas

People represent or conceptualise information in the form of mental schema. A mental map is a form of schema for spatial information and Canger suggests that an offenders mental map determines where they commit crime.

Each persons mental map is highly individual therefore examining the location of a crime can be used to infer where the offender is based, as well as their interests, employment and relationships. This helps to narrow down the search area.

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Geographical profiling

According to Canter, three characteristics are important:

  • interpersonal coherence (behaviour, eg, amount of abuse and similarity between victims, eg, all prostitutes).
  • time and place (spatial factors)
  • forensic information
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Geographical profiling - evaluation

Unlike the typology approach, geographical profiling is founded on psychological theory of how people represent and store memories and how this method of organisation of information could give investigators clues of the likely perpetrator. 

Geographical profiling is also useful for all types of crimes, not just violent ones. Goodwill and Alison (2006) found geographical info was more useful than crime scene info. 

Lundrigan and Canter (2001) studied spatial behaviour of 120 serial murderers in the USA, analysing information from solved murder cases in germs of distances from the offenders home and body disposal sites. They found three key findings:

  • the offenders home was geographically central
  • the body disposal site tended to be in a different direction to the previous disposal site, this was most evident in cases where offenders travelled less than 10km
  • Spatial information of body disposal sites may be useful in locating an offenders base
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Geographical profiling - evaluation

Information of the location of crime is important BUT is not enough from which to identify the base from where a perpetrator works

Canter and Youngs (2008) believe that both geographical and psychological information must be combined and that just having details of the location wouldn't be enough; the behaviour of the perpetrator at the scene and the victims details are also important.

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Evaluation of offender profiling

  • Offender profiling is not appropriate or necessary for all crimes but can be useful for serious crimes, such as ****, murder and arson.
  • 70% of police officers question it's usefulness, they like discoveries that can be used as evidence in court and it could be a generalised image, so may be ineffective in the real world of policing, so they're unlikely to use it.
  • O'Keefe and Alison (2001) suggest that profiling may lead to the 'Barnum effect' whereby people are presented with ambiguous, generalised statements and then see what they want to see, ignoring things that don't fit into their overall perspective. This could invalidate the results and leave out key suspects as they are bias to the psychologists perspective. They may leave things out and therefore narrow the profiling.
  • Pinizzotto and Fimkel (1990) tested five groups on their ability to construct profiles for previously solved murder and sex offences. Trained profilers produced more accurate profiles for the sex case but not for the murder, suggesting profiling is limited.
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Evaluation of offender profiling

  • Kocsis et al (2000) carried out a similar study including a group of psychics and profilers and again found profilers wee far better at identifying characteristics of a convicted offender. They also found that the group of psychologists did better than other non profiling groups, suggesting the training they have studied is effective.
  • Copson and Holloway (1997) suggest that profiling led to the identification of an offender less than 3% of the 184 cases they studied, and profiling alone isn't enough, but combined with other methods, may be effective and rule out suspects.
  • Brussel (1956) drew an accurate profile of Metesky, the mad bomber of New York, who'd been terrorising the city for many years, but he drew on his prior knowledge of psychopathy, common sense and crime scene evidence rather than profiling alone.
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