Crime fascinates many people, especially when it’s violent. For some, this is because it’s difficult to understand what compels someone to attack, assault, or kill another person. Violent crimes often feel senseless. Police and investigators have been trying to make sense of them for decades. There are several ways to do this, such as collecting evidence, witness testimonies, or using forensic science to paint a picture of the crime scene. One popular way to track down culprits, particularly in cases involving serial killers, is to build a criminal profile.
A criminal profile is defined by the FBI as “a technique used to identify the perpetrator of a violent crime by identifying the personality and behavioral characteristics of the offender based upon an analysis of the crime committed.” Typically, investigators will analyze the crime itself, evaluate evidence from the scenes, create a victim profile (or profiles), and gather any other relevant information from police reports or autopsies. All of this evidence comes together to form a psychological, or criminal, profile. This can include age, emotional characteristics, preferred criminal methods, appearance, and even a possible relation to the victim. It helps give investigators a sense of the offender’s motive and narrows down the possibilities of who may have committed the crime. In the case of serial killers, criminal profiling can be especially useful because the killers tend not to have clear or typical motives. Understanding an offender through behavioral psychology helps investigators predict a killer’s next action, which is important in cases that lack common patterns and motives.
Yet, criminal profiling is still a recent development in the field of criminal justice. The concept was formally introduced in the early 1970s by Special Agent Robert Ressler, who worked in the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Psychology as a field was still growing, so many people were skeptical of Ressler’s ideas. However, head of the FBI, William Webster, was convinced by the potential of Ressler’s methods after he sat down with him. He helped Ressler set up a dedicated program to pursue this practice, and by 1978 Ressler had his own team in the Behavioral Science Unit. Around the same time, Ressler also began his other ambitious project: interviewing the most notorious and violent serial killers in America. He and his partner John Douglas went on to interview 36 different serial killers. John Douglas wrote a book called Mindhunter, chronicling this part of their careers.
Ressler spent his professional career trying to understand what motivated killers. His dedication led to a method of investigation that the FBI still uses today. While criminal profiling isn’t without its faults, it has been used effectively in many cases of violent crimes. When viewed as a helpful tool to be used in conjunction with other methods, criminal profiling is an effective way to track down serial killers.