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Rather than criminal-profiling, this part of the forensic psychology website could just as easily have been called psychological profiling, offender profiling or criminal personality profiling.
When you read about profiling in a forensic context you’ll see slightly different terms being employed, and more often that not this simply reflects the working background of the author. For instance, a psychologist is more likely to refer to psychological profiling, whereas a criminologist is more likely to use the term criminal profiling.
In order to think about and evaluate criminal-profiling from a contemporary perspective you have to have some idea of the way in which it has evolved over the years. With this in mind, this first dedicated page will take a close look at the first widely documented use of profiling within a criminal investigation.
The importance of this landmark case cannot be underestimated, as it paved the way for the FBI’s highly influential work on criminal profiling. Work which has come to dominate our modern-day understanding of the topic.
The Origins of Criminal-Profiling
Making criminal-profiling fashionable! Read on to find out how.
The psychiatrist Dr James A. Brussel is widely credited with undertaking the first systematic offender profile within a criminal investigation. It was a profile of the person responsible for a series of indiscriminate bombing attacks spanning 16 years in New York.
Background to the case:
The first bomb was left at the business premises of the energy utility Consolidated Edison in November 1940. The pipe bomb did not detonate (arguably by design) as when it was discovered it was found to be wrapped in a note stating ‘CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU’.
A year later a very similar device was discovered. The bomb investigation team concluded that it had been constructed by the same person. The location of the device indicated that the bomber was probably en route to the Consolidated Edison building once again but for some reason he had to abandon his plan and the device was just left on the street. Up to this point neither incident had been reported in the press.
Three months later as US involvement in the Second World War began the bomber sent a type set letter to the police. In case you can’t make it out, it read. ‘I will make no more bomb units for the duration of the war – my patriotic feelings have made me decide this – later I will bring the Con Edison to justice – they will pay for their dastardly deeds.’
In fact he didn’t make another bomb for nine years.
It was March 1950 when a third unexploded bomb was discovered and it was felt that it was never intended to go off.
This was merely the calm before the storm, a fourth bomb exploded at the New York Public Library followed by another shortly afterwards at Grand Central station.
In the next six years over 30 bombs would be planted, the vast majority of which detonated.
Despite the remarkable fact that no one had been killed there was a genuine sense of fear that it was merely a matter of time. Public and political pressure on the police force to apprehend the bomber intensified the longer he remained at large. As a result of this pressure Dr James A. Brussel was asked to generate a profile of the bomber in the hope that it would help focus the investigation.
The Criminal Profile
Male, former employee of Consolidated Edison, injured while working there so seeking revenge, paranoid, 50 years old, neat and meticulous persona, foreign background, some formal education, unmarried, living with female relatives but not mother who probably died when he was young, upon capture he will be wearing a buttoned up double breasted jacket.
The Logic Behind The Profile
Most of the observations were based on common sense e.g. male (like the vast majority of bombers).
The profile data relating to his former employer Consolidated Edison were obvious from the content of the letters he posted.
Other aspects of the profile were Sherlock Holmes like, take for example the claim that the bomber was foreign.
Brussel theorised that this was because the suspect wrote in an over formal way e.g. ‘dastardly deeds’ and he never used contemporary slang.
However, in terms of its lasting legacy, the most significant parts of the profile were based on Brussel’s psychiatric and psychoanalytical interpretations.
Brussel believed that the bomber had an ‘Oedipal complex’ and most Oedipal sufferers tend to be unmarried and live with female relatives, hence it’s inclusion in the criminal profiling. He formulated this observation on what he saw as the phallic construction of the bombs and the way in which he wrote ‘breast-like’ W’s in the hand written letters he posted.
Also when he planted bombs in movie theatres, Brussel noted that he would often ‘slash’ and ‘penetrate’ the seats.
Brussel suggested that the police publicise their investigation along with the profile description of the bomber. In Brussel’s opinion the bomber wanted credit for his work and this arrogance was likely to be his downfall as he may well be tempted to reveal details that would lead the police to his door.
Every major newspaper in New York gave details of the profile and although this resulted in a number of false leads the real bomber phoned Brussel warning him against any further involvement. At the same time administrative staff at Consolidated Edison had been instructed to search their employee files for anyone who appeared to match the bombers profile.
A member of staff came across the file of George Metesky. Metesky had an accident at work and had filed an unsuccessful disability claim against the company. In response to the failed disability claim Metsky wrote a series of letters to the company, one of which referred to their ‘dastardly deeds’.
George Metesky was arrested shortly afterwards and immediately confessed. As he was being escorted to the police station it didn’t go unnoticed that he was wearing a buttoned up double breasted jacket!
Essential Criminal Profiling Reading (USA)
This book aims to transform criminal profiling into a credible science and practice that will reliably aid law enforcement investigation. Builds on existing practice and research and calls for empirical information that can lead to a sound new science of criminal profiling. See following link for full details.
This book places offender profiling within a more realistic, balanced context. Initial chapters introduce a theoretical, empirical basis for the approach, and are followed by chapters illustrating the pros and cons of its use in an applied, operational setting.
It presents two basic ideas: that offender profiling is not an end in itself, but is purely an instrument for steering an investigation in a particular direction, and that the process of developing a profile depends on a combination of investigative experience together with objective findings from behavioral science research. See following link for full details.
Geographic Profiling introduces and explains this cutting-edge investigative methodology in-depth. Used to analyze the locations of a connected series of crimes to determine the most likely area of offender residence, geographic profiling allows investigators and law enforcement officers to more effectively manage information and focus their investigations.
This extensive and exhaustive work explains geographic profiling theories and principles, and includes an extensive review of the literature and research in the areas of criminal profiling, forensic behavioral science, serial violent crime, environmental criminology, and the geography of crime. For investigators and police officers deployed in the field, as well as criminal analysts, Geographic Profiling is a "must have" reference. See following link for full details.
Do criminals leave a personality trace at the crime scene? If so, how does this manifest itself, and how do criminal profilers retrieve this information? How useful is criminal profiling within a criminal investigation? These are the main questions I’ll be addressing in part 2 and 3 of the criminal profiling series (see following links).