The Art of Profiling the Offender

One of the main objectives of law enforcement is to ensure public safety and its corresponding duty is to include the apprehension of the perpetrator. Numerous investigation approaches are introduced; including the idea that crime scene might give hints about the probable perpetrator. This premise laid the foundation of the process called Criminal Profiling.

Criminal Profiling, also known as offender profiling, is a process of identifying personality traits, behavioural tendencies, geographical locations and demographic or biological descriptors of an offender based on characteristics of crime. This method of suspect identification is used by various investigation agencies to identify probable suspects. The history of profiling can be traced back to late 1400s but it entered the practical arena during the search of Jack the Ripper. Profiling was further used in World War II when Dr Walter Langer was called to detail Hitler’s possible reaction if Germany lost the war.  Undoubtedly, the most famous case of criminal profiling is of New York Mad Bomber. Throughout the decades, criminal profiling has evolved into a more systematic approach consisting of more comprehensive information.

Now, the question that strikes is who are these criminal profilers?  Criminal profiler consists of a varied group of people including psychiatrists, criminal psychologist, police officers etc. The media has portrayed criminal profiling as a job in itself, but in reality, only a few individuals conduct criminal profiling full time. Most offender profilers are called in as consultants. The job requires specific skills and is a highly onerous job. The process of criminal profiling basically involves the following steps:

  1. Analysis of information available at the crime scene.
  2. Taking the statement of all the available witnesses and victim’s account of the crime if possible.
  3. Connecting chain of acts and events leading to the crime, Examining behavioural and personality characteristics of the offender and including them in the profile.
  4. The generated profile is then used by the investigators to sketch out possible perpetrators. If there is an emergence of any new evidence, then the profile is changed accordingly. If no suspect fits in the profile, it is reassessed.
  5. If a suspect has been apprehended, the criminal profile created is evaluated to determine its accuracy. The generated profile is then compared with the apprehended suspect.

The main task of profile making can be achieved in various ways. There is a general consensus on the fact that the crime scene can provide details about the offender, disagreement arises in determining what factors are to be considered useful. There are two broad techniques for the same:

  1. Geographically based Techniques: It evaluates the location of crimes to ascertain the most probable residence of the offender. It also helps in understanding the pattern of crime series and characteristics of crime sites. It uses a combination of environmental theory, mathematics and spatial behaviour. The profile so created using this method is then used to filter suspects on the basis of their address information.
  2. Psychology based Techniques: It basically consists of analysing the behaviour of the offender while committing the crime and then figuring out his characteristics accordingly. The crime is further categorised as organised and unorganised crime as per the information available at the crime scene and then behavioural characteristics are determined. It varies from case to case and there is no hard and fast rule fir the same.

What is behind the mirror?

Criminal Profiling has emerged as an effective method and there is a growing belief that it can accurately predict characteristics. However, this belief is merely an illusion and Criminal Profiling is not infallible. It should be kept in mind that there is no solid and coherent method that can ever predict human behaviour.  Some courts have even stated that profiling evidence are not admissible. One of the major criticisms of the process is that it does not have any scientific basis. It lacks empirical validity. One cannot identify a specific individual as the process only gives a broad indication of the perpetrator. Furthermore, personal assumptions also come into play during the process. It at times relies on those facts which are not actual. The process also ignores the fact that a different situation may cause the perpetrator react differently and their behaviour is not always uniform.  The process has the capability of deceiving investigators thereby leading to wrong convictions. Thus, a critical approach must opted for the process.


The word actually means the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to make correct judgements and when one is likely to err. Not all the reasons for ineffective result can be attributed to the process itself, lack of metacognitive skills in the profilers is another reason for failure of the process of criminal profiling.

It has been rightly said by Charles Darwin that ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. The profilers must possess the essential basic knowledge in the field. Criminal profilers need to understand how valid their inferences and assumptions are. One should detest from relying on remote inferences. However, there is ample of novice practitioners with poor metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment. They have less experience in confronting their errors and thus, often rely on false, far stretched and illogical inferences and assumptions. Owing to this, criminal profiling is replete with instances of failure and flawed attempts.

Why has profiling developed?

Criminal Profiling has still developed as an eminent technique despite of apparent lack of empirical evidence. There are three main reasons that contributed to its growth.

  1. The first reason is glamorisation of the process by media. Media has presented a fanciful and favourable image of the process.
  1. The second factor is that unlike other psychological techniques, profiling has been developed and utilized by police agencies. These agencies are reticent about their scrutiny and thus, profilers have not yet encountered broad scientific community.
  1. The third factor is a circumstantial and somewhat circular rationale that is expounded when profilers are occasionally required to provide some justification for their practices. It is based on the argument that the accuracy of profilers is demonstrated by their continued demand by police agencies. Had they not been accurate, investigators would have discontinued further profiles for future investigation.

Conclusion& Summary

Criminal profiling has gained the attention of media and public and they assert it to be reliable and coherent. But it is still in its infancy and requires enormous development, especially to establish an effective base for enhancing its credibility. The contemporary methods have certain inherent flaws.  Incorrect profiling may lead to wrong or no convictions. However, it does not mean that it should not be used, but that it must be approached with caution. It is high time to remove the existing secrecy by enforcement agencies and ask profilers to prove the credibility of their created profile.


Dhiraj Yadav

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Dhiraj Yadav is a 4th year student of Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.  He has keen interest in criminal law and IPR.  He has a profound interest in reading up judicial developments, laws and articles.

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