Friday, November 10, 2006

Profiling Serial Killers: Limitations of The FBI Approach

The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law held its annual meeting in Chicago at the end of October. One of the panel discussions during the meeting was entitled 'Serial Killers: From Cradle to Grave' which addressed the perceived limitations of FBI profiles. Among the issues raised were the following:

The notorious BTK murderer Dennis Rader who remained at large for over 30 years did not fit into the FBI's profiling methodology in relation to crime scenes.

Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos convicted and subsequently executed for the murder of several men was effectively excluded from profiling typologies because the FBI database of convicted serial killers did not include women.

The FBI tends to categorise a crime scene as either organized or disorganized. An organized crime scene is said to highlight the control and careful planing the suspect has displayed in his/her environment when commissioning the crime; thereby pointing to an educated and socially competent individual. In contrast, a disorganized crime scene points to a lack of control and an absense of intelligent decision making. The disorganised suspect does little if anything to cover his/her tracks, pointing to a suspect who is either of low intelligence or a habitual user of drugs and/or alcohol.

On the surface this seems to be a perfectly reasonable classification system but one of the issues under discussion was the fact that crime scenes often have both organized and disorganized aspects. Dr Charles L. Scott who led the panel discussion states that the actions of BTK
murderer Dennis Rader provide a clear example of this. Scott suggests Rader's first crime scene demonstrates this ambiguity as there was clear evidence of advance planning and his domination of the environment but there were several disorganized elements as well e.g. leaving behind the Venetian blind cords he used as a strangling device.

Scott also points to the problems associated with the fact that in developing profiles of serial killers, the FBI draws on data and findings elicited from interviews with just 36 convicted serial murderers, all of whom were male and 90% of them white; which raises the question of relevance in relation to female or non-caucasian serial killers.

According to Dr Scott “The FBI profiling method has many positive attributes. But it also has some inherent limitations”, and that the purpose of the panel discussion was not to critique the FBI, but acquaint forensic psychiatrists with how the FBI profiles serial killers.

Have Your Say

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Anonymous said...

It occurs that the FBI method is simplistic, as the psychological landscape changes,with media and tech, what is required is a more radical interpretation of crime scene and violence-maybe view it in the same metaphoric way that we view art-the parallels are clear. Or is it just me?

protocolinpractice said...

South Africa has the scary distinction of being right at the top of the heap with the USA and Russia when it comes to serial killers. But in South Africa, mot of our killers are black, conditions are very different and the FBI model doesn't quite work.

Micki Pistorius who has a doctorate in psychology, spent six years as a profiler with the South African Police Service. As head of their investigative psychology unit, she was involved in more than thirty serial killer cases and participated in the training of nearly two hundred detectives in the investigation of serial homicides. Catch Me A Killer and Strangers on the Street are two of her books about serial homicide in South Africa

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, the FBI has created its own limitation by using poor sampling (studying only 36 serial killers with demographic similarities). Which would explain why most serial killers are described as white males in the age range of ____.

Anonymous said...

What people reading this article need to realize is that; at best, these profiles that the FBI form are an educated guess. They use information in which they already have researched to form an "educated guess" about what the criminals behavior is. While profiling is a controversial issue, people need to recognize that what they due is very time consuming and very difficult to do. Like any profession you get things right and you get things wrong. This is not an area that can guaruntee a 100% satisfaction rate. These agents are human beings, not robots, and certainly not perfect; mistakes will be made.

Stephen Hamer said...