Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Criminal Profiling Just "Psychic" Shenanigans..?

About six or seven years ago one of my buddies and I went to Minnesota to hang out with some chick he'd met on the internet. My role in the whole thing was basically just to be there as a back-up in case she turned out to be some kind of face-eating monster like in that lame movie Species. Other than that, I more or less just stayed in the hotel room and watched reruns of Darkwing Duck. One night we all went to some discount bookstore to pass the time, and while I was there I bought a copy of Journey Into Darkness by John Douglas.

Douglas was among the first generation of criminal profilers to come out of the FBI and he collaborated on two important works, The Crime Classification Manual, and Sexual Homicide - Patterns and Motives. The idea behind both of these books, and the entire enterprise of criminal profiling, is that it's possible to deduce clues about a killer's personality(and ultimately identity) from various aspects of a his modus operandi and signature. How "organized" or "disorganized" was the crime? Did the killer bring his own weapon or acquire one on site? Did he mutilate the body, display it prominently, or cover it up remorsefully? According to Douglas, and other profilers, examining these behavioral clues could yield valuable insights into the mind of the killer, giving investigators a direction in which to look or, sometimes, fingering someone outright.

I was fascinated by all this. My dad's a psychologist and I briefly toyed with the idea of majoring in the subject in college. Reading Douglas' tales of using psychological profiling to catch serial killers was invigorating - after all, using social science to better society seemed like one hell of a noble endeavor. I plowed through Journey Into Darkness in a matter of hours, then promptly mauled through the rest of his mass-market books (Most prominently Obsession, The Cases That Haunt Us, and The Anatomy of Motive ) over the course of just a few months. I went through a prolonged period of interest in criminal investigations, reading books by profiler Robert Ressler, forensic examiners Henry Lee, James Starrs and Michael Baden, and watching (and it's almost embarrassing to think of it now) tons of Court TV's info-tainment crime shows. I even read historian Philip Sugden's massive work on Jack the Ripper.

Slowly, however, something changed. While forensics was still an incredibly interesting subject to me, something about the idea of criminal profiling seemed, by and by, familiar. It took me a long time to articulate it, especially because the macro-level crime classification methods that Douglas and others like him had pioneered in and of themselves seemed to be pretty robust and workable. At the individual case level, however, I gradually came to the conclusion that something was up. Re-reading some of my profiling books, it seemed to me like some of the profiles being provided by Douglas and his kin were actually pretty generic, somewhat valid perhaps, but applicable to, say, any given violent schizophrenic or any given violent pedophile. The remarkable precision with which Douglas seemed at first blush to zero in on his targets appeared, after a while, to be more along the lines of a flood lamp than a laser. In short, it started to come across to me like cold reading.

Again, the macro-level classifications and the assumptions that come with them seem like they work pretty well. It seems plausible to determine from a crime scene, for example, whether the killer was acting in a crazy fit of rage or in a cold and calculating fashion. Beyond that though, on the level of revealing individually identifiable characteristics about a criminal, profiling now seems to me to be a sketchier sort of enterprise. Some of Douglas' and Ressler's works would recount how even the criminals themselves would note how little they matched the profiles provided for them, but there was always some "a-ha" twist wherein it would turn out that they really did, for example, have a bad relationship with their mother, except it was really with a girlfriend they saw as a mother figure. In short, it was retrofitting based on very generalized statements. This was reinforced to me by reading back through their profiles for killers who committed similar crimes: Serial killers, for example, were almost uniformly described as white males in their 20s-30s, either unemployed or underemployed (possibly employed below their skill level), with difficulty relating to women, etc. Numerous killers were described this way (and the statistics indicate that this is the case), but how much individually identifiable information does this provide? How much expertise does it take to tick off a stock list of probable characteristics and then retrofit them to the individual who's eventually accused of the crime?

There was no better illustration of this than the attempts made to profile the so-called Beltway Sniper back in 2002. Skippy the amateur profiler made approximately the same set of stock predictions listed above. So did most professional profilers (Who, I might add, make a lot more money than your pal Skippy). I, along with, to all appearances, the entire profiling profession, expected the sniper to turn out to be a 20-30 year-old white guy. I certainly didn't expect two black guys, one of them 41 and the other 17. Criminal profilers totally dropped the ball on this one, but to my surprise there was little in the way of public discussion about their methods. Indeed, it seemed to become even more prominent in the popular culture, with shows like Body of Evidence, based on the work of Douglas-trained profiler Dayle Hinman, premiering just a couple of months later.

I'm skeptical of criminal profiling, not because I think that it is entirely devoid of merit, but because I think that it has been glorified beyond its actual ability to tell us specifics about any given case.

Interestingly, as I was preparing this post I happened to have a look at the website for Skeptic Magazine and I was surprised to note that the upcoming issue contains, of all things, a discussion about the merits of criminal profiling. Once again, this clearly proves that I'm magic.


Garret said...

Howdy magic man-
Haven't been here in a while, just stopping by to say howdy!
hope all is well!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Hey man. I'd assumed that you'd been dragged off by a jaguar or something.

Garret said...

nahh..ha ha. Going camping at Sequoia National park with my son all next week though- I will let you know if I see a Sasquatch or two!
On your topic. KFI in Los Angeles ran a 2 hour program from a criminal profiler every weekday afternoon for two hours. He was the worlds worse radio host, so it was very short lived, but still, interesting. It seemed to me to be a way of organizing information into patterns that create a typical profile, and this was nothing extraordinary sounding at all. What was interesting were the real life horror stories that he was describing, and the interviews he was able to get with the killers themselves by gaining their trust over months, to get in their heads, for better future profiling. It's easy to hook people on that many hours have I spent watching Forensic Files? couldn't tell ya
take care!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

A lot of Douglas' books were more interesting for the (horrific) stories he told than for the actual psychology he tried to discuss. In a way it kind of reminds me of some of the old crime comics and their sensationalistic depictions of "true" stories. (Maybe that's a weird reference, but I've been reading "The 10-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America".)

Anyway, have fun camping man. Just remember, if you hear a banjo, get out of the woods.