CRIME CULTURE: Portrait of a profiler

CRIME CULTURE: With Netflix rebooting its popular Mindhunter true crime drama for a second season, Tim Kent takes a close look at just how useful criminal profiling is when it comes to solving crimes.

I must admit I am a sucker for a good criminal profiling drama or thriller.

My first real taste – as for many others – was Silence Of The Lambs. The notion of tapping into the mind of a serial killer in order to track down another serial killer made for captivating viewing.

Another one was the excellent UK series Cracker starring Robbie Coltrane. This gem of 90s television drew me in as Fitz would storm in with his brilliant profiling and interview techniques to solve heinous crimes, while often exposing the traditional investigative techniques of local detectives as looking rather clumsy and inept.

Netflix’s latest offering Mindhunter based on the experiences of FBI profiler John Douglas taps into the mysterious and often magical skills of a criminal profiler. Having read Douglas’ bestselling book which first came out in 1995, the new show is compelling and dramatic. But as with anything with me, my inquisitive mind quickly commences asking questions; and the first one to roll off is how effective in real life is criminal profiling? Is it really such an indispensable technique for solving major crimes?

Has it jumped the queue in terms of solving crimes outright?

So, I decided to have a look at the evidence and much of it was surprising, to say the least. One thought I was left with after reviewing the literature is that criminal profiling is a long, long way of being an investigative tool that replaces forensic science. That’s if it ever will. Profiling of a killer or sex offender, for instance, would not be admissible in court as the only or most significant item of evidence by which a successful prosecution can base their case on.

In addition, the evidence to support its use thus far is not what one would consider as being of such strength to match its significance in popular culture, at least in film and television portrayals. And perhaps not even in regards to the exploits of John Douglas of ‘Mindhunter’ fame.

The support for criminal profiling appears to be anchored in its success stories, if you could call them that. Conversely, it is uncommon for the failures to be highlighted such as those cases whereby investigative teams have been pointed in the wrong direction by the profiler, for example, looking for a white Caucasian offender when they are African-American, or visa versa. Or unemployed when employed, single when married, or again visa versa. It does seem however to hold traction with sex offenders and that perhaps may have more to do with the personal characteristics of such criminals being more stable across offenders.

So what are profilers? Putting it simply, the role of the profiler is to extract information at the crime scene regarding the offender’s behaviour in the act of committing that offence. That information is used to construct a picture or description of the likely offender and their psychological and personal characteristics in order to direct the investigation in a particular direction when required.

In the UK most profilers are not full-time employees of the police services. Instead, they are usually called in on a needs basis and are mostly academics, some based at universities and perhaps forensic psychologists or criminologists.

One category of profilers are ‘geographic’ in nature. This type of profiling will collate and interpret patterns in the locations that offenders such as serial rapists or killers commit their crimes. This assists in narrowing the focus of investigations toward establishing a likely location for where the offender may reside.

According to the FBI a profiler expert can analyse a crime scene and formulate conclusions about the behaviour of the perpetrator in the course of committing the crime. For example, was it a carefully planned crime, were they forensically aware, or was it a crime of spontaneity or opportunity.


Information critical to forming conclusions include whether the perpetrator was meticulous, did they clean up after the crime scene, or was it staged.

What was the position of the deceased? Was the crime sexually related? What types of injuries are there? Was it a frenzied attack? Did they gain entry to the eventual crime scene by subterfuge or friendship and charm? Are there signs of a struggle? Were items removed from the scene? All of these questions are bundled together in the mind of a profiler to paint some picture of the offender.

However criminologists David Wilson and Dan Kennedy believe that this type of profiling rests upon an implicit assumption or fallacy that Kennedy refers to as a “homology” problem. This is the notion that information drawn from the crime scene behaviour is used to determine the offender’s day-to-day behaviour or personality.

Whilst it may be reasonable to assume that a consistent crime scene pattern of behaviour reflects real life consistencies in the offender’s behaviour, should that relationship be weak or just not consistent enough then it would be of no real value to the investigative process.


In a review of 100 cases involving stranger rapists, crime scene behaviours and traits revealed zero correlations between the two. In short, the study revealed no evidence of any relationship significance between crime scene behaviours and the actual personality traits of the offenders.


The FBI’s original profiling techniques were largely modelled on data collected from known psychopaths, liars and manipulators. When others have requested to view the data collected, the FBI was reluctant to reveal their full data set. What data they have been willing to part with reflects only minute sample sizes, and seemingly cherry picked from a group of offenders that were not only incarcerated but those that were willing to talk about themselves.

Forensic psychiatrist, Professor Mike McGrath at Rochester University, has been more blunt about profiling stating that the FBI questioned 36 psychopaths and took everything they say as gospel. In a further bit of criticism, McGrath suggests everyone the FBI used for its core data set appears to be a white male between 25 to 35-years-old that had a problem or fixation with their mother.


In the case of the Washington DC serial killing sniper attacks of 2002 that saw 10 people murdered seemingly at random, the profiles drawn up by the FBI yielded an enormous amount of assertions regarding the description and behaviours of the killer or killers. It concluded that the killer was most likely a white disaffected man, aged in his 20s to 30s.

In reality though there were two murderers eventually arrested by police in October 2002. Both were unemployed black men – John Allen Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old teenager Lee Boyd Malvo – and throughout their sniper spree had been driving a blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan. The vehicle had previously been spotted by police at a number of the murder scenes but the focus on Muhammad and his young offsider had not intensified due to the profiling that had been done. Police had actually pulled over their vehicle just two hours prior to one of the fatal shootings but the pair were not questioned because they did not fit the profile provided.


Former FBI profiler Mark Safarik stated that the studies used by the FBI frequently utilised a multiple choice format, which in his opinion, was restricted in regards to validity as it is not a true reflection of the skills and the process of profiling.

Difficulties are encountered when over-inflated claims are made regarding the perpetrator’s personality, behaviour, even their race and culture. This results in misdirected investigations that induce a sense of tunnel vision in the approaches adopted by investigators. Another example of this involved the case of the ‘Unabomber’. Couched in the investigative approach was a mix of some accuracy – he was a loner who resided in a rural location – and inaccurate in that he was much older and more highly educated than predicted by the profilers.

In 1989, profilers called in to assist with the investigation of a blast on board the USS Iowa concluded it was most likely a murder-suicide due to unrequited homosexual love. However, it was later found by investigators the cause of the blast was simply because of either human error or equipment failure.

And there was the ‘Green River Killer’, Gary Ridgeway. Investigators had been sent a letter from him but it was dismissed as fake. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on the wrong suspect: an innocent taxi driver.

Mark Safarik believes the role of a skilled profiler is to be cautious and not to overstep things. They are to assist in narrowing down the field of suspects. “It is not a science but can contain scientific aspects to it,” Safarik has previously said.

Safarik’s expertise in these matters needs to be highlighted. His crime fighting credentials involve investigating the sexually related murders of older women. He researched that category of murder to great detail based on data on the type of offenders investigators needed to look for.

Former FBI profiler Mark Safarik (Image: LA Times)

He was involved in an investigation regarding two double homicides of elderly couples in North Carolina. In scanning the evidence he concluded the investigation was going in the wrong direction with police looking for the wrong kind of culprit. Safarik suggested the killer was more likely to be an older offender, likely a female with mental health issues. Police ended up charging a 65-year-old woman for the crimes.

In 2017, Safarik himself was the subject of a controversial claim after the
Los Angeles Times ran a story that he had provided evidence that helped send an innocent man to jail. Safarik outright refuted these claims stating he would never have provided a report if he had been aware that the Sheriff’s department neglected to interview all of the witnesses at the crime scene. Safark also claimed that his role in the prosecutorial process had been hugely overestimated.


One previous study highlighted 88 solved cases, in which police felt that profiling was of assistance in 83% of cases. However when it came down to identifying the actual suspect this only occurred in a very small minority of those same cases.

The FBI are really considered the doyens of criminal profiling. But they too are seemingly in lockstep with other profilers in that there appears to be a general reluctance to either provide robust or reliable valid data to support their claims. While there remains a resistance to subjecting their methods to a detailed analysis of the practice of profiling.

I am not arguing a case for dismantling the practice of profiling but the critique of the same, for different reasons.

As a stand-alone practice for investigators, it will never replace meticulous evidence gathering via a forensic scientific approach.

However as an adjunct to an investigation it may have some value in pointing investigators in the right direction. Having said that, as has been mentioned earlier, there are numerous examples of where investigators have been directed down the wrong path.

Any information gathered from a crime scene – even offender behaviour – must have some worth. In particular the retrospective data gathered from apprehended and incarcerated criminals – their personalities, powers of manipulation, methods, upbringings – are valuable if it is from a public education standpoint. If only to gain a further general understanding into the criminal mind and possible early warning signs.

It seems at least from the point of view of the FBI and others that the use for the services of profilers is in such demand that this above aspect alone justifies an argument for its successes and its continuing usage.

However, profiling in the ‘real world’ of investigation is not precise enough, nor does it magically produce and locate an offender such as is depicted by so many films and TV series. All the while, leaving hapless bumbling local investigators in its wake.

For myself however I won’t be giving up on a great crime fiction yarn that involves the supreme skills of a genius-like profiler to solve the case. It’s just too good a story.




About Tim Kent 14 Articles
Tim Kent is a mental health professional with a keen interest in crime. He has had experience over many years as a registered nurse as well as a mental health clinician, in a role that frequently involved a forensic crossover. He holds a BA in the Behavioural Sciences and has an active interest in attempting to understand the complexities that drive criminal behaviour and the public perceptions of the same.

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