Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Criminal Profiling: Do not Believe what you See on TV

I am currently reading a book called Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. The book offers a multidisciplinary approach to the subject "criminal profiling", with a strong scientific basis. Due to the fact that I enjoy watching TV series like CSICriminal Minds, I have so far assumed that I knew a little about criminal profiling (OK, that is naive). However, while reading the book, I found out that most of the methods employed by profilers in such TV series are completely flawed. and

One of the flaws concerns the classification of murderers as  “organized offenders”  (psychopathic) or “disorganized offenders” (psychotic),  according to the characteristics of the respective crime scenes. Psychopathic offenders are generally intelligent and organized. They plan their actions, have good control over the situation and do not leave much evidence behind.  Unorganized offenders, on the other hand, are messy and not very intelligent. They act randomly and leave plenty of evidence.

However, according to the author, “the majority of crime scenes presents somewhere on a continuum between the two extreme classifications of organized and disorganized, not as simply one or the other”. In addition to that, “the amount of evidence left behind or not left behind must be viewed in the context of a dynamic series of events”. Only a well conducted forensic analysis can give insight into how and why a certain crime scene presents the way it does.  It is also not always possible to know if the disorganized crime scene is a result of mental illness. It can be a result of rage or drugs/alcohol, for example. On the other hand, an organized crime scene is not necessarily the product of psychopathic behavior.

The labeling also fails to take into account the evolution of the offender’s behavior.  A messy murderer can become more skilled and competent over time. Other offenders can become less skilled due to mental health deterioration. Similar flaws can be found in geographic profiling and investigative psychology as well.

But why does it matter? It is only fiction, after all. Well, that can be a problem when not so qualified cops or scientifically uninformed judges and juries believe in what they see on TV.

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