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Comparative Analysis of 'Top-Down' and 'Bottom-Up' Approaches to Offender Profiling

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Offender profiling is the process of analysing a crime scene, victim, and any other evidence in order to provide a likely description of the offender. The top-down approach is used by the FBI in America, and is typology lead, whereas the bottom-up approach to offender profiling is what is used in the UK, and is data driven. My motivation for writing about this topic is that I have an issue with the names ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ themselves, as to me these seem entirely theoretical and provide no insight into the actual approaches to offender profiling. However, before I go into this, I will first briefly outline what these two approaches truly are and how they differ.

The top-down approach is the method of offender profiling used by the FBI. This approach is typology lead, as investigators will use detail from the crime scene to decide whether they believe the offender to be ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’, and thus characteristics they are likely to possess. These two typologies where initially decided upon in the 1980’s, through in-depth interviews with convicted murderers, and detailed information being compiled by the behavioural science units from 36sexually motivated serial killers, allowing for the pattern of either ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’ offenders to be recognised, and the way that these different offender types were reflected in the crimes of the convicted murders that were interviewed. This allows investigators to use these typologies, in a reversed manner, to point towards the likely characteristics of an offender based on details of the crime. The organised typology refers to an offender who is likely to be intelligent, have a skilled occupation, and be socially competent, as well as many other characteristics, and an organised offender can be recognised by features of the crime such as it being planned, very self-controlled, the body and weapons being in different locations, a clean crime scene, and the victim being a stranger. This vastly differs from the disorganised typology, which applies to offenders that are likely to be socially inadequate, live alone, unskilled in work, and are also likely to know the victim. A disorganised offender can be recognised by features such as the crime being unplanned, clues being left and the weapon being left at the crime scene, and not being in control which could be evidenced by eye contact with the victim being avoided.

The bottom-up approach is the offender profiling method that is used in Britain, which starts with small details of data and then builds up to the bigger picture. Unlike the top-down approach, as this technique is data driven there are no initial assumptions made regarding the offender. This approach is focused largely on investigative psychology, such as interpersonal coherence and forensic awareness, and geographical profiling, such as whether there is a centre of gravity that the crimes are based around, and if the crimes are being committed close to this centre point, or the offender is travelling away from it. The bottom-up approach relies heavily on computer databases and a programme known as Smallest space analysis, allowing for patterns to be detected highlighting if a series of offences are connected. Canter, who created the ‘Smallest space analysis’ can be argued to be the UK’s foremost profiling expert, as through focusing on consistencies in offender behaviour during crimes, he has been able to solve many well-known cases such as John Duffy, the ‘railway rapist’. Canter identified that all 24 sexual assaults and 3 murders committed by Duffy took place near railway stations in the North of London during the 1980’s. Through analysing these geographical details Canter was able to create a very accurate profile, such as it is likely that the offender had a connection to railway stations, allowing him to identify Duffy, who did infact work at a train station.

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Both of these approaches to offender profiling have their own benefits and weaknesses, such as the fact that the top-down approach is based solely on a very reductionist classification system, as when Canter looked into it in 2004, it was found that there is no real distinction between the two typologies, as many serial murder cases contain both organised and disorganised elements, and thus this approach is extremely reductionist and it is more beneficial to look at individual personalities, and the different ways serial killers exhibit disorganised aspects of their activities. In this sense, the Bottom-up approach can be seen as more reliable due to the fact that it is data driven and thus more objective than the typologies that can be seen as speculative, however the bottom-up approach can still be seen to have its limitations, as both approaches to offender profiling can only effectively be applied to crimes that reveal information about the offender, such as crimes that are completed multiple times in a very similar manner, or extreme cases such as ritualistic crimes. These approaches can also cause police to become too focused on the profile of the offender, thus causing them to be blinded to other possibilities, and therefore if the offender does infact not fit the profile this could in extreme cases lead to miscarriages of justice, such as the hunt for the killer of Rachel Nickell in 1992, in which investigator Paul Britton developed a misleading profile causing many clues pointing towards the killer, Robert Napper, to be missed, and Paul Stagg, an innocent man to be arrested based on no evidence other than that he fit the profile of the offender.

It is clear that there are therefore issues with both methods of offender profiling, as there is with all aspects of psychology as it is not possible to accurately predict all human behaviour, however it is not the effectiveness of the approaches that I want to focus on. I have spent a long time (way too much time) trying to get my head around the names ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ trying to work out what this means, and I have realised that the reason these have confused me so much is that they don’t truly mean anything, or infact add anything to the approaches themselves. The typology approach used by the FBI is known as the ‘top-down’ approach, and it is clear that this is due to the fact that in order to create the profile of the offender one begins with the typology, and then moves ‘down’ from that to the profile and likely characteristics of the offender. Yet, if we picture this diagram in our minds, with ‘organised or disorganised’ at the top, an arrow pointing downwards, and then the ‘offender profile’ below, there is absolutely no reason that this could not be flipped on its head, putting the typology type at the bottom, and this leading upwards to the profile, making it exactly the same typology lead method but called ‘bottom-up’ instead. The exact same thing can be said for the British data driven approach to offender profiling, known as the ‘bottom-up’ approach. It is called this as this approach begins with the database of all crimes, investigative psychology, and geographical details, before flowing upwards to reveal the profile of the offender. Yet, if one were to simply flip this, suddenly the data is at the top, and the arrow moves downwards to the profile, thus making this the ‘top-down’ approach, right?

I am aware that this simply sounds like wordplay that doesn’t actually mean anything, and why does it matter anyway? And I do understand that in reality it doesn’t really matter, but I think my issue is that they have purposely given the approaches a name such as ‘top-down’ to distinguish it from the British approach to the same thing, when these names are based entirely on a hypothetical model of the profiling method. The concept that for the ‘top-down’ approach the typology belongs at the top, and we move down to the profile of the offender is not actually anything to do with the approach, infact we could even view the model as the ‘left-to-right’ approach, where we move across from typology to profile. I guess you could view this of Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, where language only has meaning to those that are playing that specific game. As such, within the world of forensic psychology the top-down and bottom-up approaches to offender profiling have a clear and understandable meaning, as they are applied to the approached themselves, yet when you take a step back and view these names from outside the language game, it becomes apparent that the names ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ are infact meaningless, and are simply based upon a constructed model of how the approaches should be laid out. Thus, to conclude, I think we should just abandon these names, and stick to ‘the typology-based approach’ and ‘the investigative psychology approach’, if only to avoid confusion for people like myself who tend to over-philosophise.

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Comparative Analysis of ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom-Up’ Approaches to Offender Profiling. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/comparative-analysis-of-top-down-and-bottom-up-approaches-to-offender-profiling/
“Comparative Analysis of ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom-Up’ Approaches to Offender Profiling.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/comparative-analysis-of-top-down-and-bottom-up-approaches-to-offender-profiling/
Comparative Analysis of ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom-Up’ Approaches to Offender Profiling. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/comparative-analysis-of-top-down-and-bottom-up-approaches-to-offender-profiling/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Comparative Analysis of ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom-Up’ Approaches to Offender Profiling [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/comparative-analysis-of-top-down-and-bottom-up-approaches-to-offender-profiling/
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