Saturday, November 10, 2007

Criminal Profiling Topic of the Day: Malcolm Gladwell Disses Criminal Profilers

There is an article in the New Yorker this week by Malcolm Gladwell and he pretty much compares criminal profilers to charlatans and con artists. I can’t really get mad at the guy because I understand where he is coming from and why he is so annoyed at the what criminal profilers have claimed they are capable of predicting through crime scene analysis. I, myself, have been baffled at how some conclusions have been reached by a review of the evidence of the crime scene. How does someone surmise the killer has a stutter or drives a sports car by the way a girl is raped and strangled? I figured I was missing some amazing piece of analytical skill or someone was pulling a fast one.

I eventually learned that the profilers who came up with amazing stuff that doesn’t rely on science or logic:

1) got inside information that made them look damned brilliant when the suspect was caught and indeed he matched that piece of the profile
2) guessed and were simply lucky
3) guessed and no suspect was found to prove him wrong,
4) guessed and people forgot the part of the profile he got wrong or ignored it because the rest (read: the easier part) of the profile was right.

This is exactly the kind of criminal profiling concept I have been fighting against for the last decade. Criminal profiling is crime scene analysis with a heavy emphasis on behaviors of the victim and suspect. All conclusions should be based on science and logic and should be clearly explained. No guesses should be made just off the top of the head or from simply gut feelings. The criminal profiling process is but a method of analyzing a crime scene to come up with a reasonable a scenario as possible leading to the best next investigative choices to make. This is all that criminal profiling is; a method of analysis conducted by a criminal profiler to aid the police or by the detective himself to further his investigation.

Criminal profiling should not be a parlor trick nor should it be considered some magic or psychic answer to a perplexing crime. Neither should criminal profiling be tossed as a complete sham as Malcolm Gladwell has basically advocated; this would be a sad loss to law enforcement as criminal profiling skills are terribly needed by investigators on fresh crime cases and by detectives in the cold case squads. Too many crimes go unsolved and killers uncaught because of bad crime scene analysis that throws the investigation completely off track.

Criminal profiling is a very useful tool and I hope that a right perception of the field will encourage its proper use in the field of police investigation

Criminal Profiler Pat Brown


preraphazon said...

I don't like hocus pocus either, and there's a lot of it going on, but as far as predicting stuttering, John Douglas has been able to predict not specifically that but that a person had some embarassing feature or impediment that made them avoid coming face to face with people and do their work in remote locations and come at the victim from behind. I thought that work was valid. It was more about where and how than what was done to the body though. And if I remember correctly, the logic came from the viewpoint of why didn't the killer do this other more obvious thing that would be more ordinary, and there had to be some reason for it.

Criminal Profiler Pat Brown said...

Most of the impediment stuff has no basis in fact. The reason many killers come up from behind is not that they are socially inadequate but because it is a good way to knock out victims.

Many times profilers spend too much time fantasizing about the killer's emotional weirdness and come up with the killer's thoughts that he never knew he had. I remember when the Boston Strangler was asked how he outsmarted the police with his choice of victims; why they were always one step behind. He said (paraphrased heavily), "How could they know where I was going to strike when I didn't even have a clue myself!?

Many times the profiler just simply decides what the killer thought and that is that. If a woman has a towel over her face, the profiler says the guy knew the victim and did not want to look at her face. Then the killer is caught and asked why he did that and he says, " I thought the bitch was ugly so I cover us her dogface."

And that will never show up in the notes that the profile was wrong about why the cloth was covering the woman's face and the profiler keeps his image intact.

preraphazon said...

I can see where it would be hit and miss and not always consistent, but I do think Douglas nailed it a couple of times on that subject. And of course, the first wave of profilers interviewing criminals had an advantage no other profiler will ever have again, which is getting more honest answers from unsuspecting criminals, who are all now wise to what profilers are up to and would better know how to deceive.

I had to identify a car thief once from a photo lineup. I was having a lot of trouble with it until I remembered he had worn sunglasses. One of the photos, they guy had extremely odd eyes. So I placed my pinky over his eyes on the photo and knew for sure it was him.

I went and picked up the stolen vehicle (I worked at a car dealership). It was packed tight with all his belongings. In every compartment, there were sunglasses, 29 of them, I think it was.

Someone with an oddity is going to centralize that and change their behavior to accommodate it. So while I agree that just because someone comes up from behind doesn't mean they have an impediment, I do think a combination of signs could point to an impediment of some sort, and certainly an impediment might lead someone to crime, as it had the car thief, who probably had trouble finding employment because of his odd looks. The inability to have a career or sex life because you have an oddity takes a toll on many people. Ridicule begins in school and isolation continues as an adult. It can certainly cause rage and a lack of empathy. So I do think it's something that one might expect to occasionally predict given the right circumstances. I'm sure you're right that there are more predictions than accurate results, however. People shooting the dice. And I agree you can't take one set of circumstances and ever say that 100 percent of the time, this scenario leads to this type person.

You're right to not accept one person's findings for absolutes but to always keep all avenues open.

Criminal Profiler Pat Brown said...

Good thoughts and all true, BUT the problem with this is one shouldn't make a theory based on a possibility. This is pure guesswork and is dangerous. Profiling should not be predicting at all; this is no better than doinng psychic crap. The analysis should be based on solid logic and evidence. Let me give two examples from the same case:

Example One:

Profler One (not me): The woman was tied up, hand and foot, half naked, and stabbed in the breast: it is a sex crime because sex crimes look that way.

Profiler Two: Due to the totally of the evidence, this is not a sex crime. The woman was half dressed because that she had changed into a t-shirt to go to bed; she was bound hand and foot because the killer intended on controlling her and then placing her in the trunk of a car; the stab in the breast was intended (when all hell broke loose and the man ran out of time) simply to kill her - the heart is in that location.

Example Two (from the same case): The woman was on the phone was suddenly, she looked across the room and screamed, "Oh, my God!"
The Profiler above gave this no signifigance in spite of the fact he profiled this crime as having been committed by a pedophile that babysat the woman's children, a very small, effeminate, man who had a key to the house.

Now, I look at this situation and I cannot see why this woman would look up and see this silly man with a knife and scream, "Oh, my God!" and not, "WTF?" However, the suspect I profiled, the ex-husband who she feared, would more likely elicit this response if she looked up and saw him in the doorway with a knife in his hand.

So, profiling should not be guesswork but sensible conclusions. To say someone has a stutter because they bop people over the head from behind is a HUGE jump and there is no basis for such a statement. It IS egregious to suggest there is even any way we could surmise such a thing, so it is better not to do so. It makes profiling much less scientific and far to artsy. Profiling as an art should be gotten rid of. While experience may play into the "art" of analysis, especially behaviors, it should not be some mystical thing as has been promoted in the past. If you can't explain exactly WHY in each case, and specifically for each case, you have chosen some profiling conclusion, one shouldn't even go there. If you say the guy drives a van who committed the crime, it ought to have something to do with the way the woman was killed (she had to be killed in the vehicle because of the evidence; say no physical material from the outside surroundings and the type of crime required a larger area than a car) and not because serial killers like vans (as in the 70s). This is simply vague, information based on inductive research methods (I interviewed a bunch of convicted killers and 80% drove vans). What this actually means is a) 20% don't drive vans, you don't know what kind of vehicles the successful, uncaught serial killers drive, it is now 2007 and vans aren't as popular, and you don't know that THIS serial killer is like the rest of them. So, this kind of guessing becomes detrimental to the case rather than only determining the vehicle if you have enough physical or behavioral evidence to be specific.

BTW, you are one hell of a witness! I would suck. I have zero memory and I can't tell people apart (can't even identify my own kid in a crowd...geez)

preraphazon said...

All good points. I think as long as the person doing the analysis separates in their own mind what is certainty and what is speculation, thinking outside the box can pay off in difficult situations. It's been a while since I read JD, but I seem to remember he qualified things like that. I'm one of those people who do think instinct has a place. But it can't stand alone, that's for sure. Still, I think sometimes when detectives exercise their instincts, they may reach out to a remote idea and find things fall into place. Of course, they may also find a lot of rabbit trails.

transfattyacid said...

I was wondering if you have an opinion on David Cantor who has popped up throughout the McCann investigation to give his views.