Offender Profiling; the history of the US ‘Top Down’ Approach.

A tale of two approaches: Top Down(US) and Bottom Up (UK).

Offender profiling attempts to describe a tool that aims to narrow the scope of a criminal investigation. This is broken down into 3 key aims (Holmes and Holmes 2002);F.B.I wanted poster for Ted Bundy

1)  Identify characteristics of the suspect.

2)  Create an evaluation of their belongings.

3)  Bespoke interview strategies.

Boon and Davies (1992) coined the labels ‘top down‘ and ‘bottom up‘ approaches to offender profiling.  The aim was to distinguish between those that take a more evidenced based profiles using strong data collection strategies to build a picture of the crime from the bottom up as opposed to the notion of a more intuitive application of prior knowledge  and experience that is then applied from the top down to the scene.  The ‘Top Down’ approach is often cited as being more akin to The U.S -F.B.I methodology and the ‘Bottom Up’  applied to the more distinctive British approach which is often used to describe David Canter’s Investigative Psychology.

However, it could be stated that British profilers such a ‘Jigsaw man‘ Paul Britton could be classed as ‘top down’ due to the profiles he generated from his experience as a Clinical Psychologist and therefore the geographical labels are only as a guide.

The historical roots of the Top Down American Approach 

The starting point to profiling arguably goes back to the start of policing itself.  The techniques themselves are not new either  The work of John Snow (this one did know something!) in the Victorian era using data and deduction to narrow to the source of a cholera epidemic can be seen in the techniques used in geographical profiling today. Jack the Ripper, Hitler had all been the targets of forms of psychological profiling and prediction of future behaviours to allow a strategy to be formed for their plotted downfall. Walter C Langer in his secret wartime report; The Mind of Adolf Hitler famously predicted that Hitler was commit suicide if he rationalised the war was lost.  In the text Langer argues;


This is the most plausible outcome. Not only has he frequently threatened to commit suicide, but from what we know of his psychology it is the most likely possibility. It is probably true that he has an inordinate fear of death, but being an hysteric he could undoubtedly screw himself up into the super-man character and perform the deed. In all probability, however, it would not be a simple suicide. He has too much of the dramatic for that and since immortality is one of his dominant motives we can imagine that he would stage the most dramatic and effective death scene he could possibly think of. He knows how to bind the people to him and if he cannot have the bond in life he will certainly do his utmost to achieve it in death. He might even engage some other fanatic to do the final killing at his orders. Hitler has already envisaged a death of this kind, for he has said to Rauschning: “Yes, in the hour of supreme peril I must sacrifice myself for the people.” This would be extremely undesirable from our point of view because if it is cleverly done it would establish the Hitler legend so firmly in the minds of the German people that it might take generations to eradicate it.


James A Brussel and the case of The ‘Mad’ Bomber

However, the work of James A. Brussel is often cited as being the first meaningful ‘Profile’ of the modern era.  After a sustained series of bombings between 1940 and 1956 in New York placed in deliberately very public spaces the Police picture-of-brussle-holding-his-bookexasperated turned to local psychologist, Brussel. The profile stated the suspect was most likely middle aged, overweight, and probably not married. It was possible that he lived with a relative, maybe a brother or sister. The offender probably had skills in engineering or mechanics, and may have come from Connecticut or surrounding areas. According to Brussel, he noted that the bomber had a particular grudge against Consolidated Edison, which was New York’s main power company at the time.

“He goes out of his way to seem perfectly proper, a regular man. He may attend church regularly. He wears no ornament, no jewelry, no flashy ties or clothes. He is quiet, polite, methodical, prompt… Education: at least two years of high school. The letters seem to show that. They also suggest that he’s foreign-born or living in some community of the foreign-born…He is a Slav… One more thing,” I said, my eyes closed tight. “When you catch him—and I have no doubt you will—he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit….And it will be buttoned,” I said. (Brussel, 1968)

All of this information led police to George Metesky, who was a former employee of Con Ed. In 1957, Metesky was arrested, and surprisingly confessed at once to the bombings. Ironically, Dr. Brussel noted that the bomber would be dressed nicely and neatly. When George Metesky was arrested, he changed into a neat, clean, double-breasted suit from his pyjamas, which he dutifully buttoned.

The 1970’s -onwards

In the 1970’s a melting pot of specialists in serial crimes became the catalyst for how profiling is shaped today.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation started to develop its own profiling techniques, Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany were key members of the newly formed Behavioural Science Unit.    In addition to this Robert Keppel and Richard Walter published a manual called ‘Profiling Killers’ partly based upon their wide experiences of working within Michigan prisons. Ressler, Burgess and Douglas started to develop the idea of a typology of serial offenders.

Watch the following video clip that discusses the start of profiling in the 1970’s with an interview with serial killer; John Wayne Gacy.

After interviewing 36 of America’s most dangerous serious offenders, they identified key characteristics that would allow law enforcement agencies to ‘read’ a crime scene that correlated with a type of individual and their stereotypical behaviours summarised below into the organized and disorganized typologies.


Watch the video clip that summarises all approaches of profiling with a focus on the Top Down typologies.

Howitt (2009) identified a key 4 stage process to the approach;


However Dr Tom O’ Conner suggests;

This classification stage of analysis is, however, considered unnecessary by those who: (a) advocate inductive (or non-FBI) methods; or (b) find that there is no empirical validity or reliability from classification.  Godwin (1998) and Canter et al. (2004) are representative of those who consider classification along FBI lines to be invalid.  Nonetheless, the FBI method of classifying the basic “type” of the offender early on has existed since 1974 for good reason.  Douglas, Ressler, Burgess & Hartman (1986) recount successful use of the method, best explained in Ressler, Burgess & Douglas (1992), as having value for narrowing down, early on in investigation, a possible list of suspects quickly sorted by psychological “indicators,” much like the DSM-IV checklists used in counseling psychology (Douglas, Burgess & Ressler 1997).  The FBI method involves classifying offenders very narrowly by whether they are “disorganized” or “organized,” and not only is there debate over whether these terms have any utility, there is debate over whether these two categories are a typology, a dichotomy, or a continuum (Turvey 1999).  Essentially, they are substitute terms for psychotic (disorganized) and psychopathic (organized); i.e., watered-down psychiatric terms for the benefit of law enforcement training.  Most of all, they are generalizations, not conclusions.  An offender, so categorized, only “tends to” have the characteristics associated with their type.  No magical capture of the offender is expected from use of this typology.

Case Study -The Washington Sniper

 Watch the following video clip using the infamous ‘Washington Sniper‘ case and consider how the experience of the individual profiler can produce contradictory perspectives creating an obstacle rather than a useful tool for law enforcement agents.

Profiling today.

There has been much criticism of the F.B.I approach on a number of fronts in terms of its reliability as being fit for purpose.  As it tends to be used for serial cases which are high profile its successes and failures are often well documented, warts and all.  In addition many academic evaluations have been performed on the accuracy of the typology with existing, retrospective data arguably the most damning is that of David Canter’s paper of 2004 which statistically analysed solved cases and how they correlated with the typologies.  Only two of the characteristics provided any correlation.

Read about Professor David Canter’s own approach to profiling here.  

Exam based resources

Other Resources


Good Cop-Bad Cop? the Psychology of False Confession and interrogation.

The case for the Good Cop

…the false belief and false memories in cases of coerced-internalised false confession are most commonly developed as a result of manipulative interrogation techniques.              (Gudjonsson, 1997, p. 298)

Gísli Guðjónsson C.B.E and currently honorary consultant Clinical and Forensicch4_700x500gisli_now-lr_1 psychologist at Broadmoor Hospital has made arguably some of the biggest contributions to Psychology.  Guðjónsson has had a hand in some of the most significant interventions Psychology has made in the U.K particularly as his role as an expert witness in false confession.  The most notable within the context of the infamous  Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four miscarriages of justice as well as the assessment of Colin Stagg whilst on remand for the Rachel Nickell murder.  However one of Guðjónsson’s biggest applied contributions in that of his research into a reliable method of measuring the yield and shift elements that contribute to different types of false confession.  This is called the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale which is only available to Chartered Clinical and Forensic Psychologists.

Types of False Confession

1. Voluntary False Confession -Examples of reasons are to pre-empt further investigation of a more serious offence (Shepherd, 1996), or to protect a significant other,to gain notoriety or even a pathological need to become infamous and to enhance one’s self-esteem (Huff, Rattner, & Sagarin, 1986);

Listen to an excerpt of the infamous taunting confession of ‘Wearside Jack’ who sidelined the Police in the 1970’s from the hunt of Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.  Sutcliffe murdered three women whilst the police were searching the North East area for ‘Jack’ rather than the West Yorkshire area.

2.  Coerced-compliant false confessions. -Those who want to please their interrogator or think they will be released at a later date due to being found not guilty,   These individuals know they are not guilty. Read about the case of ‘FC’.

3. Coerced-internalised false confessionThe suspect accepts the version presented to them and internalises the ‘facts’.  This is a dangerous scenario as false memories can be created which are very difficult if even possible to differentiate from real memories and thus only new evidence can counter these.  Why would anybody looking if someone has confessed?  This is where yielding to pressure and shifting the story becomes prominent. Gudjonsson-False_Confessions can be very influential here too.

For a guided tour on the Psychology of Forensic False Confessions with analysis by Guðjónsson himself read and watch the clips in this fascinating BBC News Special on the case of the Reykjavik confessions.


Read an insightful interview from the 2013 edition of the Psychologist by The British Psychological Society that delves into  Guðjónsson’s lifetime of contributions to Psychology.  There is a particular interesting section on the influence of the Reid technique. You can listen to the interview here.

The Case for Bad Cop

John E. Reid and Associates developed one of the most effective methods of eliciting a confess170402629ion from a guilty suspect.  ‘The Reid Technique’.  The technique has been used extensively in North America and has contributed to the convictions of countless suspects.  The technique uses a range of methods to guide the suspect into a psychological state where they are given a choice of versions of events (both of which requires admission of guilt).

There are three many phases of the process.

1. Factual analysisThis represents the collection and analysis of information relative to a crime scene, the victim and possible subjects.

2. Behaviour Analysis Interview –a non-accusatory question and answer session intended to elicit information from the subject in a controlled environment.  The clinical nature of the interview, including the asking of specific behaviour provoking questions, is designed to provide the investigator with verbal, paralinguistic and nonverbal behavior symptoms which either support probable truthfulness or deception

3.  Accusatory interrogation –elicit the truth from someone whom the investigator believes has lied during an interview.

adapted from

The interrogation of a suspect who has lied is the basis of the formation of  Inbau and Reid’s 9 steps.

Step 1 – Direct Confrontation. Lead the suspect to understand that the evidence has led the police to the individual as a suspect. Offer the person an early opportunity to explain why the offence took place.
Step 2 – Try to shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. That is, develop themes containing reasons that will justify or excuse the crime. Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive.
Step 3 – Never allow the suspect to deny guilt.  If you’ve let him talk and say the words ‘I didn’t do it’, and the more often a person says ‘I didn’t do it’, the more difficult it is to get a confession.”
Step 4 – Ignore excuses. At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or could not commit the crime. Try to use this to move towards the confession.
Step 5 – Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.
Step 6 – If suspect cries, infer guilt. The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt.
Step 7 – Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect is expected to choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted.
Step 8 – Admit guilt. Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses.
Step 9 -Confession. Document the suspect’s admission and have him or her sign as a confession.
The Reid technique isn’t without it’s criticism due to the danger of applying such intense psychological pressure onto an individual, especially one that scores highly on the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale, especially as vulnerability to suggestibility isn’t an overt trait that could easily be recognised.
The P.E.A.C.E method is an alternative to the Reid technique;
 Further watching

An insightful documentary into the relationship between interrogation and confession.