Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Criminal Profiling Topic of the Day: Criminal Profiling 101

I began writing this post about my observations of Gerry and Kate McCann for the purpose of our discussion here on the disappearance of little Madeleine. The Spanish television interview of Gerry and Kate McCann was actually the first time I studied anything about the case. Yes, I know, I may be one of five people on the planet that doesn’t know anything about it, but circumstances have kept me from following this or any other case lately. Anyway, I started to go back in time to observe other things about the McCann’s statements and behavior as well as any available facts and crime scene evidence to see if my observations were supported. I did not find much reliable information, let alone fact, that could be used to support anything. After reading several press and media reports and associated discussion, what I did find is that we have the very best discussion going on anywhere here at The Daily Profiler.

Emotions always run high when people discuss the disappearance of a small child, and generally, their comments reflect these emotions and are not based on logical thought or scientific fact. However, I am very impressed with several of the comments made here on our blog. Perhaps because the events and behavior exhibited by many of those involved is unusual (OK-bizarre), and not easily attributed to factors we are familiar with, it has caused many to think a little deeper. Many of our readers have shown some good critical thinking skills in their comments and the questions they raise. So when I saw the extent of unconfirmed information attributed to “unnamed sources close to the investigation” that is being reported as fact by many members of the press it gave me the idea to change the focus of my post from the McCanns to how critical thinking is applied in criminal profiling and investigation. It is also very useful for reading your daily newspaper in general. I kept the first paragraph from the post I started writing about the McCanns to explain some of what criminal profiling is about. Here goes….

It is important to keep the following in mind, but maybe not for the reason you think. I’ll explain in a moment. I want to make it clear that this is not a professional analysis of the McCann case, nor a critical review of any law enforcement officer, agency, technique, or procedure; and I certainly am not attempting to make a clinical diagnosis of any kind. The only person qualified to diagnose diseases and disorders of the body and mind is a clinician or doctor; and plenty of them have no business doing it either. Oops. Bet I just lost a few of you there. Well not so fast Grasshopper. Stay with me please.

You may disagree with my low regard of doctors and so dismiss what I said out of hand. Or maybe you took offense at my statement and think I’m full of crap, this is boring, etc; which it may very well be for those not interested in learning about criminal profiling and investigations. Others may have thought “I didn’t know there are bad doctors” and now you believe it as fact, simply because you read it here.

Guess what? WE ARE ALL WRONG!!! My comment about doctors and the example reactions above is called Bias.

We all carry around our own preconceived ideas and opinions on issues of small and large importance whether we consciously realize it or not. It is difficult to avoid since we are continuously bombarded with information designed to influence our opinion. This information comes from newspapers, radio, television, and personal contact with others. Here are some ways critical thinking is used to evaluate a particular claim or statement:

What is the statement or claim, and who is making it?

Before you accept information as fact, determine if the person has something to gain by making the statement. You must also ask yourself if your own assumptions or preconceptions have created bias or influence how you view someone else’s statements or ideas.

Great credibility is associated with public figures and persons in positions of authority, and while we can learn from them on subjects within their field of expertise, their statements or claims should not prevent you from asking good questions of your own.

Are there other plausible explanations for the statement or claim (or event)?
It is possible to have two or more explanations that explain an event or claim. The Law of Parsimony says we should accept the simpler explanation that requires the least number of assumptions.

When events or behaviors appear to be correlated, it does not prove that one event or behavior caused the other. Further investigation is required to discover if they are related because of a third event or behavior.

An open mind free of preconceptions allows for objective evaluation of facts and evidence. Therefore, bias must be identified and removed from critical thought and scientific analysis to produce reliable results and appropriate conclusions.

Sorry, I am going to get a little technical here because it is necessary to understand a little about scientific inquiry in order to apply it.

Scientific principles are the foundation of all scientific inquiry. Modern forensic and other biological sciences are supported by three thoroughly tested and validated principles based on the knowledge that all living and non-living matter is governed by the same laws of physics and chemistry. These principles are natural casualty (all events can be traced to natural causes within our ability to understand), uniformity in space and time (natural laws do not change with time or distance), and common perception (people view natural events in a similar manner.) Common perception applies only to scientific study because it is limited to objective observations that produce reliable information. Common perception does not apply to subjective value systems that vary among individuals such as religious, moral, or cultural beliefs and personal views, or opinion. The ability to keep an open mind is elemental to the advancement of science. Scientific conclusions are always tentative and subject to modification required by new observations or experiments.

Yes, Deductive Criminal Profiling and Behavior Analysis is a scientific endeavor because it uses the scientific method to draw conclusions based on known facts borne of objective observations, considered thought, accurate communication, skill, and experience. A criminal profile is derived from crime scene analysis, including physical evidence and Victimology, critical thinking, analytical logic, evidence dynamics, and other scientific principles used in forensics. The scientific method is applied to these elements producing logical deductions that lead to well-reasoned conclusions regarding offender characteristics and behavioral evidence. Therefore, arguments that support each offender characteristic are based on the premise that if the underlying facts and evidence are proven to be true, then so must be the logical conclusions arrived at by studying them. Imagine the affect bias, no matter how small, can have on making observations when evaluating evidence and other investigative tasks.

Why is all this important? For starters, when a criminal profiler is part of a criminal investigation, they, like everyone else who discovered, processed, or evaluated evidence in the case can be called to testify in court. Identifying the suspect of a crime is not enough; the methods and evidence used to identify and build a case against a suspected offender must be sufficient to convict him in court.

Removing the influences of bias from our work does not mean we have completely eliminated a particular opinion or preconception from our minds and so we must constantly remain vigilant for bias.

Those in law enforcement and related fields as well as professions such as physicians, etc. who work closely with the general public on an individual basis are taught to maintain an emotional distance from the people they interact with in order to be objective which will allow them to be thorough and accurate in the performance of their duty. Since these types of professionals often meet individuals experiencing trauma, or some other extremely personal or stressful event, great importance is placed on leaving their emotions at the door.

Sorry, but lack of emotion does not equal objectivity- nor does it increase productivity in many cases. Additionally, it is generally believed that separating ones emotions from personal contact with individuals helps maintain mental health by preventing emotional overload and burn out for these types of professionals. In the last 24 years, I have met many investigators who were the “no emotion” type. I can’t think of one who was not an asshole with the personality of a wet dishrag, often with poor interview skills. Remember- canvassing, re-canvassing, interviewing, and re-interviewing are very critical in successful investigations. You get the picture.

Conversely, an effective criminal profiler must possess a range of valuable professional characteristics including an enduring passion for examining facts, seeking answers, and resolving cases combined with the unwavering self-discipline to put aside personal opinions, pride, and career ambition. Notice the word “passion” which infers emotion. Pride and ambition are common sources of bias; yet these qualities are allowed, even admired and encouraged by many law enforcement agencies. Moreover, these influences have proven to be at the least, minor impediments, and at most, disastrous to an investigation or even to public safety. Since we must identify bias to avoid its influence, it should be considered that emotions such as passion and empathy could be useful qualities for those in public service as it can be a powerful motivation to promote dedicated effort. It is entirely possible to perform objective analysis and evaluation of victims, witnesses, and evidence if one remains vigilant of all forms of bias by using critical thinking techniques to purposely avoid bias such as personal opinion and ambition from influencing deductions and conclusions.

Donna Weaver

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