Saturday, December 11, 2010

Criminal Profiling

I confess. I occasionally watch Criminal Minds. In fact, one of my all-time favorite episodes of any television program ever is a Criminal Minds show. If you can get your eyes on one called Riding the Lightning, don't hesitate. Just make sure you have some tissues nearby. I will watch that one I-don't-care how many times. And I don't care how accurate it is. It gets to me.

But as a series, CM has never felt quite right. Too many leaps. Too many things that seem to be pulled out of a hat, magician-style.

At Lee Lofland's Writers' Police Academy I attended a class on profiling serial offenders by Rick Helms. In addition to being a retired forensic psychologist, Helms is an award winning author of ten published novels.

This presentation covered inductive verses deductive criminal profiling, and for the sake of brevity, I'll boil it down to a seriously low level.

Inductive profiling (the kind we see most often on television) is focused primarily on a broad criminal base. Time after time, in actual cases, this line of reasoning has proven fallible, and is often referred to as 'cookbook forensics.' It uses demographic characteristics, primarily of those criminals who are behind bars—not necessarily the smartest examples of criminal behavior.

A strong cornerstone of inductive profiling is the Macdonald Triad: animal cruelty, obsession with fire setting and bedwetting.

Deductive profiling (which to many professionals is the preferred method) drills down to the individual criminal with a heavy emphasis on victimology. It also calls for strong analysis of the crime scene, forensics and motivation.

The motivation analysis for deductive profiling suggests that:

-no offender acts without motivation
-no two cases are alike
-motivations are unique to the offender
-behavior develops uniquely
-most recent offense may not resembe the first offense
-an offender is capable of multiple motives
-those motives can change

So, when you're writing your law enforcement response to a killer, you might want to check out the difference between what used to be used with regularity (and is the staple of most television programs) and what professionals are relying on today.

CR: Skin Deep by Timothy Hallinan.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Thanks for sharing this information. I didn't get to attend that particular session at WPA so this is very helpful. I liked the early Criminal Minds with Mandy Pantinkin much more than the more recents ones, which seem to be much more graphic with less actual profiling. My favorite episodes involve Reed's kidnapping and Penelope being shot. I don't know what that says about me!

  2. The profiling method CM seems to use is the inductive type. Where you kind of take an insurance statisticians approach to who has committed what crimes in the past. Which pretty much has the ability to completely miss the bad guy who is operating at the moment.

    "He's a white male who is a loner, never graduated from college and drives a volkswagon bug."

    Hello??? What if he's not?

  3. Thanks for an informative post. You used the term "criminal profiling." Are both types mostly used to track down serial killers, rapists and arsonists? Rather than individual homicides...?

  4. Great question, L.J.

    The title of the presentation in the 'Line-up" states the following: "Rick will present INDUCTIVE AND DEDUCTIVE PROFILING OF SERIAL OFFENDERS - the role of defense mechanisms such as displacement, and of obsessive compulsive tendencies in serial offenders, and how testing might be used on known offenders to assess the risk of serial crimes, or of reoffending in general."

    (Note: This is one of the presentations Jeffery Deaver attended . . . and took notes. Very cool.)

    A couple of comments that found their way into my notes:

    "We are good at describing behavior, not so good at explaining behavior, and absolutely stink at predicting it."

    And, more to the point of your question:

    "Insurance companies profile for risk. It's easier to do this for groups—not so much for individuals."

    And, one more from my notes:

    "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. (I guess this isn't an original Dr. Phil quote.)"

    My notes also suggest I Google: Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI profile.

    By the way, I'm totally looking forward to reading SECRETS TO DIE FOR. It's loaded on my Kindle and one of my priorities because I enjoyed THE SEX CLUB very much.

  5. Human behavior is fascinating. Thanks for posting this information. It's very interesting.
    Donna V.

  6. Hey, Peg--I followed Patricia's recommendation over here and it looks like you may have some useful stuff for me! I write mystery and suspense, but tend to use a somewhat clueless MC because THIS STUFF is my weak spot, so i look forward to learning from you!

  7. Donna, thanks for stopping by. What would we do without human behavior?

    Hey back, Hart. Some posts are more informative than others, but hopefully there's always something that connects. Somewhat clueless MCs are delightful.

  8. Nice post. I received my masters in Forensic Psychology with an emphasis on criminal profiling, and it has been a huge help in my writing. No matter what you write from mysteries to romance, criminal profiling can help with building characters and picking up clues to their actions based on inductive and deductive reasoning. I recommend the book, Criminal Profiling by Brent Turvey for anyone interested in seeing how crime scenes, victims, and actions are reflective of personality.

  9. Wow, J.A.. Thanks for not telling me I totally misunderstood the seminar. It wouldn't have been the first time.

    And thanks for the recommendation. When my book budget stops hemorrahging, I'll check that one out. It sounds very familiar. In fact, I had to turn around to look at the books I keep at hand to see if I didn't already have it.