Dangerous minds

Malcolm Gladwell has written an excellent article for The New Yorker on the problems with the FBI’s methods of profiling serial killers and other serious offenders.

The Behavioral Analysis Unit (formerly the Behavioural Science Unit) is the FBI’s psychology unit that aims to research and develop methods of understanding criminal behaviour, police tactics, negotiation, and crime scene analysis.

It is a huge enterprise that exports its expertise around the world. Foreign police forces can often call on their expertise, for free, to help solve domestic cases.

However, in many ways the BAU is a world onto itself. It develops its own techniques that can often be quite distinct from those of non-FBI forensic psychologists. For example, many of its criminal and crime science analysis methods rely heavily on Freudian-style symbolic interpretations.

For example, the FBI classifies serial killers into ‘organized’ and ‘disorganized’ types.

Organized serial killers supposedly use logic and planning to commit crimes that fulfil their fantasies. The victim carefully selected, efforts are made to maintain control throughout the crime and the scene is cleaned up afterwards.

In contrast, disorganized serial killers supposedly choose their victims almost randomly and attack in a haphazard way, taking opportunity as it occurs. The crime scene is apparently chaotic and because the ‘disorganized killer’ has no interest in the person themselves, they may, as Gladwell recounts, “takes steps to obliterate their personalities by quickly knocking them unconscious or covering their faces or otherwise disfiguring them.”

Perhaps the thing that raises the most eyebrows is that it publishes and reviews many of its theories in its own in-house journals, meaning they get little outside academic scrutiny.

Gladwell takes a look at some of these ideas in more detail and notes that they haven’t faired well to some of the independent academic assessments they’ve been tested with:

Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool decided to test the F.B.I.’s assumptions [pdf]. First, they made a list of crime-scene characteristics generally considered to show organization: perhaps the victim was alive during the sex acts, or the body was posed in a certain way, or the murder weapon was missing, or the body was concealed, or torture and restraints were involved. Then they made a list of characteristics showing disorganization: perhaps the victim was beaten, the body was left in an isolated spot, the victim’s belongings were scattered, or the murder weapon was improvised.

If the F.B.I. was right, they reasoned, the crime-scene details on each of those two lists should “co-occur” ‚Äî that is, if you see one or more organized traits in a crime, there should be a reasonably high probability of seeing other organized traits. When they looked at a sample of a hundred serial crimes, however, they couldn‚Äôt find any support for the F.B.I.’s distinction. Crimes don’t fall into one camp or the other. It turns out that they’re almost always a mixture of a few key organized traits and a random array of disorganized traits. Laurence Alison, one of the leaders of the Liverpool group and the author of “The Forensic Psychologist‚Äôs Casebook,” told me, “The whole business is a lot more complicated than the F.B.I. imagines.”

The whole article is a fascinating insight into the world of FBI profiling and notes that the methods may rely as much on cognitive distortions for their impact, as on hard evidence.

UPDATE: The forensic psychologists over at the excellent CrimePsychBlog have some commentary on the Gladwell piece, noting, among other things that Gladwell bases his criticisms on methods of profiling pioneers whose time has long since passed. A scientific approach is apparently now the mainstay of profiling practice and (they hope) that also includes the FBI.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Dangerous Minds’ (via 3Q).

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