How successful is the practice of offender profiling in the criminal justice system? This piece of work will be reviewing the success of offender profiling in the criminal justice system. It will do so by comparing the different methods carried out in order to profile an offender and delving into the pros and cons of each method.
The first major example of offender profiling is that of ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1888) – which is widely cited as the first occasion where the method was applied in order to try and determine who the killer was (Bonn, 2014). At the time it was believed that he was a medical doctor, this was due to the precise nature of the cutting to his victims’ bodies. However, it is now widely believed that the predictions made by physicians George Phillips and Thomas Bond, who consulted by the police, were, although informed, undeveloped (Bonn, 2014). To this day there are hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper was.
Within the criminal justice system two of the primary types of offender profiling methods are the ‘FBI’ style and the ‘statistical’ (‘actuarial’) profiling methods: Dennis Howitt states that the FBI profiling method is “based on information gathered by the police” especially from the scene of the crime. Howitt also describes the differences between an organised and disorganised crime scene; “an organised crime suggests…a sexually competent, charming person…lives with their partner…”, whereas “the disorganised crime scene…indicative of an offender with low intelligence…unskilled occupation…lives alone”. The ‘statistical’ method of offender profiling is largely based upon the work of David V. Canter, a well- renowned psychologist, and as stated by Howitt, uses patterns at crime scenes which could be linked to the characteristics of the offender. This method of offender profiling is analysed over multiple crime scenes. There are however issues to discuss when the successfulness of offender profiling is to be analysed; as touched upon by David V. Canter, the idea of offender profiling is far more suited in fiction than it would be in a real-life investigation. The police are better suited to gathering information and direction that will allow them to question their suspects accordingly as opposed to using relationships, personality or family circumstances of an unknown criminal in order to create an idea of who they should be pursuing.
One of the more famous cases of offender profiling being used is that of the murder of Rachel Nickell. FBI agent Robert Ressler was flown in from the United States to psychologically profile the unknown criminal and he determined the perpetrator to be; “a filthy weirdo…clever but crazed…worships mother…hates all other women…”. Ultimately, Dr. Paul Britton was the lead psychologist on the case. Matthew Weaver gave a detailed account of the Nickell case; Britton created a profile that matched with Colin Stagg, this caused Stagg to become the main suspect almost immediately, despite there being limited evidence from the scene of the crime. The police trusted in Britton enough to set up a ‘honey-pot’ in order to lure Stagg into confessing to the murder. The method they used played on both the profile created by Britton and the information they had gathered on Stagg. Although he never confessed Stagg was arrested for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Another murder was committed by Robert Napper in this time. A year later the trial against Stagg fell through after the honey-pot scheme was deemed as ‘deceptive conduct of the grossest kind’. In 2008 the new suspect, Napper, admitted to the manslaughter of Nickell. Many involved in this case were condemned for their actions. Britton was faced with seven charges of misconduct in 2002 for his involvement in the 1992 case however, all charges were dropped. This case highlights one of the larger issues with the success of offender profiling; the police deemed the characteristics of Colin Stagg more important than the evidence that was collected from the crime scene, leading to the wrong man being arrested.
To conclude, although offender profiling has proven successful in the past, such as in the case of James A. Brussell and the New York Bomber, the approach is often not found to be largely effective, with cases being solved via other means of investigation. Although it could be argued that there is no harm in using the method as part of the investigation; offender profiling alone is not overly successful within the criminal justice system.
- Bonn, S A., 2014. Jack the Ripper identified. [online]. Sussex: Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/jack-the-ripper-identified [Accessed 20 January 2019].
- Howitt, D., 2002. Profile Analysis. Introduction to Forensic and Criminal Psychology, 13 (1), p.215.
- Canter, D. V., 2012. Investigating ‘Offender Profiling’. Forensic Psychology for Dummies, 6, p.122.
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