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


The truth about lies and deception…….honest.

I have read the terms and conditions. Surely the single greatest lie ever told, certainly in terms of the volume of us who have ticked that box knowing that really we haven’t.  However, deception breeds deception and with now defunct computer game shop Gamestation taking advantage of the aforementioned ‘fib’ by fiendishly incorporating into the smallprint of their online terms and conditions- that they owned the very soul of anyone whom blindly ticked the box -‘the immortal soul clause’ as it was called.  Over 7.500 people were caught out on April 1st 2010- they were refunded their soul in an email.


However lying, deception, untruthful, false, dishonest, mendacious, perfidious, duplicitous, dissimulating, dissembling and double Janus-facedness is a normal human behaviour, not just human, animals deceive too. Koko the Gorilla had been taught sign language and ruthlessly blamed the ripping out of a sink from a wall on her pet kitten (Koko signed on the return of her keepers…..”The cat did it!”).  If we are to take an evolutionary view it is a survival mechanism, a simple smile to someone you despise or you feel threatened by is a useful tactic to hide any weaknesses that may be exploited by them and hide, deceive them of your true feelings. However false smiles can be detected if you know where to look – the muscles that generate a warm and honest smile are different to those that are created  when creating a false smile. It’s all in the eyes…you see.

Those lying eyes

real-eyesThe eyes truly are the window to the soul. However don’t be fooled by so called Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques  (a good example of pseudoscience) that if someone is looking up when telling you something then they are lying there is little evidence to support this but is something that your hear still being pedled around every now and then.

And there lies the crux of the matter…are there any reliable physical cues to deceptiouniversal-facial-expressionsn?  Maybe a more fundamental question is are there any universal responses of facial expression or body language? (The eyebrow flash for recognition of someone  is thought to be pretty universal as an involuntary response.)   Certainly classic research by Ekman into facial expression has suggested that there are a handful of truly universal expressions. However deceivingly there is a long tradition of supposed cues to deception or ‘tells’ as gamblers would say little unconscious signs of anxiety, uncertainty due to knowingly attempting to convince someone of something you know not to be true. Going red, not being able to look someone in the eye, looking at someone for too long in the eye, rubbing the back of the neck, rubbing the ear lobes, scratching the nose, excessive blinking (note that psychopaths reportedly blink less and maybe that is why they are better at deceiving people) are all ways many think they can spot a liar – but where does the truth lie?

Bad Lie detectors

Many of these are signs of anxiety not necessarily deception, blinkinghowever Polygraphs (aka lie detectors)  have been used for many years in criminal investigations in the United States (and on the Jeremy Kyle show) and provided as evidence, however it measures variations in physiological arousal (not lying) and therefore fundamentally flawed, the American Psychological Association concluded:

The development of currently used “lie detection” technologies has been based on ideas about physiological functioning but has, for the most part, been independent of systematic psychological research. Early theorists believed that deception required effort and, thus, could be assessed by monitoring physiological changes. But such propositions have not been proven and basic research remains limited on the nature of deceptiveness. Efforts to develop actual tests have always outpaced theory-based basic research. Without a better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which deception functions, however, development of a lie detection technology seems highly problematic.

For now, although the idea of a lie detector may be comforting, the most practical advice is to remain skeptical about any conclusion wrung from a polygraph.                                          Cited;

F.B.I training focusses upon a range of techniques for detection .

Good lie detectors

Where humans on average can detect lies at marginally above chance level – 54% but surely professionals such as Police officers are better?  When Samantha Mann conducted research into a new area of lie detection and found some interesting results, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on story cues rather than the historic notion  body language cues of the more experienced and stronger lie detectors used in the research.  Detecting true lies; Police officers abilities to detect true lies.  Mann and Vrij’s research supports the view that often the focus on lie detection is in behavioural cues rather than the more accurate experienced police officers who also rely on story cues as a method of detection.

There have been a number of publications integrating a range of approaches to lie  detection.

Here is an overview of  an alternative piece of research conducted by Mann and Vrij investigating high stake liars.

Professor David Canter and colleague  may be  about to turn the whole area on its head with current research taking place at the Centre for Investigative Psychology on revisiting the use of polygraph techniques in the UK. 

The BBC recently compiled a practical overview of lie detection – View it here. 

The fun of deception

However, the detection of lies can be fun…………… a light entertainment kind of way.  The story cues on the clip below may seem so far fetched that it must be a lie…it must be………..mustn’t it?

Profiling the Profiler…..Professor David Canter

David Canter without doubt is one of the most influential psychologists of the era.  His work 15555891_Birthday_371167cfocusing on ‘Offender Profiling‘ and the development of geographical profiling is well documented and is  a stalwart  of Forensic Psychological text and reference for 30 years.  Canter is known for his applied methods of profiling which are a stark contrast between the FBI approach utilising a systematic to approach to data analysis of evidence to narrow the scope of an investigation rather than a more subjective ‘intuitive’ approach. Canter says, ‘Investigative psychology, includes many areas where psychology can contribute to investigations–including profiling. The goal of investigative psychology’s form of profiling, like all profiling, is to infer characteristics of a criminal based on his or her behaviour during the crime. But, Canter says, the key is that all of those inferences should come from empirical, peer-reviewed research–not necessarily from investigative experience. Canter is one of the most prolific academics in the area and is cited all over the world pertaining to his research and experiences in the area.

 Canter applied the concept of Circle Theory based upon the notion that all peoplerobhouse_4b and thus offenders operate in a limited spatial mind set creating imagined boundaries based upon pre existing knowledge.  Canter provided evidence that offenders can be divided into two sub categories when interacting with their environment, Commuters and Marauders.  The John Duffy case saw the formation of Circle Theory based upon the locations of the first 3 crimes.

Watch the documentary of the case which interviews Canter and details the case in which Canter made his name and is now synonymous with offender profiling. * Warning graphic descriptions are included in the video. Click the pic to watch.


Canter has been the face of profiling,  with best selling books such as Criminal Shadows and Mapping Murder  as well as successful series again called Mapping Murder.

Here is an extract from David Canter’s own blog discussing Offender Profiling

OK, the time has come to write about the bugbear of my life, ‘Offender Profiling’.  Recent publications  have encouraged me not to keep quiet about this any longer. Now is the time to explain why I find the term ‘profiling’ so problematic yet get stuck with using it.  For many people ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘personality’ profiling implies everything that psychologists and other behavioural and social scientists contribute to law enforcement.  One consequence of this popular myth is the growth industry of Criminology and Forensic Psychology courses in universities. Crime fiction fills the television schedules and crime fact the news programmes. So if you are interested in people and society but want to get out there and do something or just ‘get into the mind’ of miscreants, there is a natural drift towards the fictional, heroic figure of the ‘profiler’. This character knows what makes offenders tick and follows directly in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes that ordinary mortals cannot.

In case you haven’t read anything recently on Psychology and Crime I had better explain very briefly how I come to be caught up in all this.  A quarter of a century ago, by a roundabout route, I provided some elementary (Holmesian reference intended) guidance to a major police investigation into a series of linked rapes and murders around Greater London. Without checking with me that they had understood what I had suggested or why, the police drew on my comments to prioritise one of the handful of suspects they had identified through a systematic trawl of the criminal records. This individual was convicted and the police lauded my contribution as very helpful. The myth emerged that I had solved the crime with an uncannily accurate account of the person the police were looking for.  The advantage of this myth was that I was called in to give advice in many other investigations and get access to information the police hold on crimes and criminals so that I could start doing proper research in this area.

It is easy to forget that before I was given access in the early 1990s to information held by the police, to carry out studies from a psychological perspective and to build up empirically based models of differences between crimes and criminals, that this was a very unusual activity. Now, as for example illustrated by papers in The Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, (hey ho – impact factor 0.533…) which is in its tenth year, that has become a common form of social science research around the world. It is instructive to note that it was the recognition by the police that this form of research may be useful to them which made the research possible.  This research did not come about because of recognition by academics and professionals that the information collected at the tax payers’ expense could be harnessed to elucidate the nature of criminality.

I still bristle at how difficult it is to get access to these police files even after all the research that has shown their value over the last twenty-five years, despite ethical and professional controls on their use. Politicians complain at the amount of paperwork the police have to deal with and generate sound bites about the need for more ‘coppers on the beat’. They don’t seem to realise that all the records being collected (I repeat at tax payers’ expense – they are not the private property of the police) are a potential gold mine for researchers who could greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of police work if only given access.

Although access to real information on criminals is still challenging there are an increasing number of researchers around the world who are overcoming these challenges. (Interestingly it seems to be most problematic to get access to criminals themselves in the US, but much easier in developing countries such as India or Turkey.) These studies of crimes and criminals are going far beyond the idea of the lone, brilliantly insightful individual who solves crimes for the police – The Profiler. They also inevitably overlap with related areas, such as police interviewing processes, the detection of deception and the complex decision making tasks that Senior Investigating Officers face. In the way of these things the work has also generated decision support tools, notably ‘geographic profiling systems’ that draw on where crimes occur to indicate where detectives should look for a criminal. Taken as a bundle it seems to me that this wide range of research activity, nearly all of which is offline, in the sense that it is not a direct part of any investigations, does not really fit with the notion of an ‘offender profiler’ or ‘criminal profiling’, so cherished by crime writers. That is why I called this area Investigative Psychology.

That label ‘Investigative Psychology’ is increasingly used in textbooks and for university centres and for some police units, notably in Israel, Japan and South Africa. But terms that carry a mythical heritage are hard to kill off. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Anne and Curt Bartol, one of the most well established and highly regarded forensic psychology couples in the US, produced a book this year on Criminal & Behavioral Profiling.  Drawing on the skill that so dominates US texts, of taking an amorphous topic and turning it into something that can be taught to undergraduates, they have laid out an academic framework for something that really was a mass media invention.

They identify a number of areas of ‘profiling’ activity. What is really exciting, though, is that in their scholarly way they evaluate each of these areas and show them wanting. The area closest to crime fiction ‘crime scene profiling’ is characterised as “presenting new thoughts in difficult-to-solve cases”. Many social scientists with recognised this as the general contribution of social science to most areas of human decision making.  It is perhaps slightly disingenuous to grace this with the exotic term ‘profiling’.

Another area the Bartols identify is ‘suspect based profiling’. This is the sort of activity that leads police to stop and search a higher proportion of people from some ethnic groups than from others. It is therefore highly contentious and, as Bernard Harcourt points out in his excellent 2007 book Against Prediction, has a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in it. The more people of a certain sub-set you look at the more likely you are to find something dodgy about them supporting your views about what a dodgy lot they are.

The activity of carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’, in other words creating a psychological  profile of a dead person, especially when the causes of death are equivocal, is also an aspect of ‘profiling’ that the Bartols make clear is fraught with difficulty. It is not really clear what it involves or how reliable it is. They support the view that it “requires far more empirical support before its scientific basis is established”.

However, these are not just the concerns of academics. Nor are they only of interest to crime writers, like those who approach me every now and then, trying to get an authentic view of what ‘profilers’ are like and what they do. There are increasing attempts to get ‘profiles’ into court. This is either by the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant has all the psychological features of the person who committed the crime, or by the defence to claim their client was just not the sort of person who would do something so heinous.  Fortunately, given all the scientific doubts about criminal profiles, courts in the US, and even more so in the UK, are very reluctant to allow this type of evidence.  The slightly more focussed attempt to show from behaviour alone that a number of crimes were committed by the same person, known as ‘linkage analysis’, has fared slightly better in US courts but in the great majority of cases has not been allowed. This has not stopped lawyers trying to use linkage analysis in complete ignorance of the psychological and social issues. One even approached me to see if I would agree that offences had a common perpetrator because they were all committed on the same day of the month!

All in all, ‘Profiling’ is going to stay with us, fanned by popular interest and the fascinating challenges it poses to empirical research. I see it as rather like the James Galway effect that Capturegot so many youngsters interested in orchestral flute playing and consequently improved the quality of flute playing in general.  The continued fascination with the criminal mind and how to profile it is drawing in many very capable students and scholars. So although, as the subtext in the Bartols’ book makes clear, psychology and related social sciences have a long way to go before they can make a major impact on the processes of law enforcement, the path is now being cleared of the myths and half-truths that so inspired fiction writers. The way forward is now obvious.

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