By Michael R. Davis Assoc MAPS, Research Fellow, Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science, Monash University and Forensicare
and Deb Bennett, Detective Senior Sergeant, Behavioural Analysis Unit, Victoria Police, and Monash University
Inferring the likely characteristics of an offender from analysis of their criminal behaviour is known as 'offender profiling'. It is perhaps the most sensationalised and poorly understood forensic application of behavioural science knowledge. Due to fictional accounts in movies and television, many people consider the practice of offender profiling to be synonymous with forensic psychology. Indeed, the national executive of the APS College of Forensic Psychologists routinely receives calls from people interested in becoming 'profilers'. This article serves to dispel many of the myths surrounding offender profiling by describing the range of behavioural investigative techniques, their use in the Australian context, and the role of psychology and psychologists in this often misunderstood field.
Criminal investigative analysis
It is important to note that offender profiling is just one of a range of behavioural investigative techniques. Amongst the law enforcement community these tools are known collectively as 'criminal investigative analysis' (CIA). The various CIA techniques are interrelated but differ in the focus of their analysis. For example, 'indirect personality assessment' involves an assessment of an individual's personality without actually meeting the person. A common application is in criminal investigations, where evaluations of a suspect and their likely reaction to questioning are discerned from collateral information. 'Equivocal death analysis' is a focused form of psychological autopsy. It involves an opinion regarding the mode of death in unclear cases (i.e., accident, suicide, or homicide). This is based upon an evaluation of the deceased person's life and the manner in which they died. As the name suggests, 'linkage analysis' or 'comparative case analysis', involves an analysis of offence behaviours to determine whether a series of offences is likely to have been committed by the same offender. Other CIA activities include 'threat assessment' and 'trial strategy'. Conceptual links between the various techniques are evident. They differ based on the information available and the eventual product of the analysis.
Forensic psychology and profiling around the world
One of the most enduring myths regarding profiling is that forensic psychologists or psychiatrists are, by nature of their training, qualified to construct offender profiles. This belief has produced a great interest in forensic psychology as a specialisation within the behavioural sciences. As a result, some leading psychology and law programs in the United States have had to advertise that their syllabus will not develop such skills. Nonetheless, there is a kernel of truth behind the mythology, as some psychologists are involved in the area to varying degrees in different countries. Furthermore, the first people to be involved in profiling were forensic clinicians.
Despite the early influence of forensic mental health practitioners, the practice of profiling in North America has been dominated by the work of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) since the 1970s. The American practice sees CIA as "a behavioural approach to the offence from a law enforcement perspective, as opposed to a mental health viewpoint" (Munn, 1992, p. 310). It is acknowledged that the techniques draw upon the knowledge base of the behavioural sciences, but with a focus on being relevant to investigators. For example, the motivational typology of rapists utilised by FBI analysts is based upon a clinical typology. Similarly, equivocal death analysis is based upon the psychological autopsy. FBI analysts build upon these theories and techniques to apply them more readily to the needs of police investigators.
In contrast to the American approach, offender profiling in the United Kingdom has been dominated by the work of psychologists. As is the case in most fields involving psychologists, there has been an often heated division between clinicians and academics who previously provided profiles on an ad-hoc basis. However, there have been recent moves towards a greater synergy between these two camps. Operational profiling in the United Kingdom is now conducted under the authority of the National Crime and Operations Faculty (NCOF). Practitioners are known as Behavioural Investigative Advisors (BIA). There are five full-time BIAs in the NCOF with psychology and police backgrounds. There are also more than 30 external consultants that are subject to audit and evaluation. The NCOF have nursed extensive links with the FBI and academic institutions.
Perhaps due to the greater presence of psychologists in British profiling, there has been a strong focus on academic research. The bulk of such work has come from the Centre for Investigative Psychology (CIP) at the University of Liverpool. The CIP is directed by Professor David Canter, who describes investigative psychology as "a framework for the integration of many diverse aspects of psychology into all areas of police and related investigations" (Canter & Youngs, 2003, p. 175). The CIP is involved in numerous research projects and provides training at both Masters and PhD levels. Some NCOF staff have obtained degrees in investigative psychology, demonstrating the desired synergy between the academic and practitioner sides of this field.
Profiling in Australia and the role of psychologists
Offender profiling in Australia has largely followed the American model, envisaging CIA as a police investigative tool. In the 1980s, two Australian police officers were trained by the FBI as part of the now defunct police fellowship program. The original 33 graduates of this program later developed, with the FBI, the International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellowship (ICIAF). This organisation provides FBI-approved training in CIA to police officers worldwide who must pass a rigorous program of casework and examination. Furthermore, the ICIAF also allows for non-police professionals to be elected to membership in recognition of their contribution to cases. Currently in Australia there are four police ICIAF members (three of whom are still employed by police services) and one psychologist.
The role of psychologists in Australian CIA practice has been elevated by work in the state of Victoria. The second author of this article is officer in charge of the Victoria Police Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU). During her four years of training with the ICIAF she made contact with professionals in various forensic disciplines, and would consult them when it was felt that additional specialist advice was required. The logical extension of this process was the development of the Australian Forensic Reference Group (AFRG), a formalised consultancy group to assist the BAU. Gathering a range of disciplines to one meeting not only offers the benefit of saving time when several professionals need to be consulted, but more importantly, it facilitates a synergy between the disciplines, where new explanations for physical evidence from a pathologist can be incorporated into the reasoning of a psychologist. As such, the whole is potentially more valuable than the sum of the parts.
AFRG membership includes professionals both external and internal to Victoria Police. The group is concerned primarily with solving serious serial crime, particularly that with a sexual and/or violent nature. This focus was chosen because even though serial offenders constitute a small minority of the offender population, they also tend to offend prolifically and are thus responsible for a significant proportion of overall crime. To illustrate this, figures from the national Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), have shown that in more than 6000 Australian cases, 39 per cent of offenders committed 61 per cent of the offences (Bennett & Davis, 2004).
Such a group had never been formed before anywhere in Australia, or to our knowledge the world. Though recourse to external consultancy is not by any means a recent phenomenon in policing, cursory national and international comparisons have revealed that a structured, regulated collection of forensic expertise such as that represented by AFRG is at the forefront of developments in serial crime investigation. Membership includes experts from a range of disciplines, including forensic psychologists, psychiatrists, pathologists, anthropologists, biologists, toxicologists, technicians and specialist police personnel. Unsurprisingly, psychologists are prominent in AFRG meetings. Thus far, feedback from detectives that have requested the services of AFRG has been positive.
The Victoria Police BAU has also been involved in research, in collaboration with psychologists, to validate the American knowledge base for use in the Australian context. There is a paucity of research on Australian offence data. The first project to emanate from the BAU involved a test of the key distinction between anger and power motivated behaviours in sexual assaults (Bennett, 2005; Bennett et al., in prep). The offence behaviours from 200 Australian rape cases, chosen by stratified random sampling across states, were coded based upon variables described in ICIAF training documents. Multivariate analyses indicated that the FBI typology did have validity with Australian offences. Further research is currently being planned and there has been interest in the results from CIA practitioners overseas.
Contrary to public perceptions, offender profiling and the wider field of CIA is not synonymous with forensic psychology. Indeed, few forensic psychologists are currently involved in providing behavioural investigative advice. Nonetheless, the field is grounded in the knowledge base of behavioural science. In Australia, the interface between psychologists and CIA practitioners has been greatly enhanced by initiatives of the Victoria Police Behavioural Analysis Unit, including the Australian Forensic Reference Group and academic research. Further collaboration between the disciplines is likely to occur as behaviour analysts request more advice and require greater empirical justification for their opinions. However, this is dependent upon psychologists providing advice that is relevant to police investigations.
Michael Davis is National Secretary of the APS College of Forensic Psychologists. Deb Bennett is currently undertaking a Doctorate in clinical-forensic psychology at Monash University. Further information about this article can be sought from Michael Davis .
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