What is Criminal Profiling?

Criminal profiling is the process of identifying behavioral tendencies, personality traits, geographic location, and demographic or biographic descriptors of an offender based on the characteristics of a particular crime. The primary goal of criminal profiling is to narrow the field of possible suspects to a more reasonable number from the hundreds or thousands of possible suspects. In essence, criminal profiling is a form of prediction wherein a profiler attempts to predict who the offender might be on the basis of crime scene information and the behavioral patterns or habits of the offender.  By using data collected on other offenders who have committed the same type of crime, the profiler is able to come to some conclusions regarding the current offender. Of course, the better the data on other offenders, the more accurate the profiler will likely be. It is important to note that criminal profiling can rarely point to the particular person who committed the crime; rather, the process is used to develop a manageable set of clues as to who may have been responsible for the crime.

Criminal Profiling v. Psychological Profiling v. Racial Profiling

In their book, Introduction to Forensic Psychology, Curt and Anne Bartol describe the differences between criminal profiling, psychological profiling, and racial profiling.

Criminal Profiling

Criminal profiling refers to identifying and describing essential information about a suspect. As previously indicated, criminal profilers use data about other offenders who ha

ve committed similar types of offenses in attempting to narrow the pool of possible suspects. The goal of criminal profiling is to arrive at a profile of the type of individual who may be responsible for committing the crime of interest.

Psychological Profiling

Psychological profiling refers to a behavioral sketch of an individual who may or may not be a suspected offender.  The process of psychological profiling involves integrating information and evidence from the crime scene with psychological theory to arrive at a sketch of the perpetrator’s behavior and personality. Bartol and Bartol write that the United States’ Office of Strategic Services used psychological profiling during World War II in an effort to understand the tendencies and thought processes of Adolf Hitler.

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling refers to police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin (rather than the behavior) of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity.

Applied Profiling v. Research on Profiling

One important aspect to consider is that our application of the principles of profiling can only be as good as the research behind it. Thus, one area of forensic psychology that drastically needs attention from forensic psychologists is that of profiling research. It is crucial to understand the reliability and validity of various profiling techniques so they can be improved to allow for meaningful application by law enforcement and other forensic investigators.

Excerpted from: Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2004). Introduction to forensic psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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