Guest Post – Dr Jez Phillips: What is Offender profiling?

Posted on 9 November 2012 by


Dr Jez Phillips

Today’s guest post is from the blog of Dr Jez Phillips, a psychologist, Deputy Head of Psychology and senior lecturer at the University of Chester in the UK. Phillips has a particular interest in the field of forensic psychology. This is a broad area in itself, covering the application of psychology to diverse but related issues such as policing, criminal investigation, criminal action and the many elements of the criminal justice system.

Phillips enjoys lecturing on, and researching, all of these areas and is currently working on projects involving the management of Priority and Prolific Offenders and the use of social media in policing. His blog is, where this post originally ran. He intends to follow this up with some additional installments.

Offender Profiling
Offender profiling is a subject of great controversy. It has been widely portrayed in film and TV and yet the realities of this process, and of its usefulness, are so often misunderstood.

Profiling is not, as many would have you believe, a form of magical deduction that leads to an offender being identified and plucked from the masses. Profilers are also not, again as often portrayed, blessed with some insight or strange ability to see the world through the eyes of another. No-one can really do that. At the same time though, profiling is of great interest to people and generates many questions.

To begin with then, let’s examine the concept from the top – just what is offender profiling?

Firstly, offender profiling is known by a wide variety of terms. Read a range of books and papers on the subject and you will find it referred to in terms as diverse as criminal (personality) profiling or assessment, criminal investigative analysis, psychological profiling, investigative profiling, (criminal) behavior(al) profiling, and crime scene profiling (Cook & Hinman, 1999; Egger, 1999; Homant & Kennedy, 1998). Not only is there are wide variety of terms used but they are often, confusingly, used interchangeably.

So why is there this lack of consensus? Why is profiling labelled in such different ways? Essentially this reflects the fact that different theorists and practitioners argue that profiling should be approached, and applied, in different ways.

Some, for example, believe that investigative experience and even ‘hunch’ are important factors in profiling.

Others reject these assertions, making it clear that profiling must be approached scientifically, or not at all (an assertion that forms the backbone of ‘actuarial’ approaches to profiling developed by Prof. David Canter).

These differing approaches will be outlined in more detail in future posts, but the key fact to take away at this point is that profiling is not just ‘one thing.’

As you would expect, these different approaches also mean there are a large number of definitions of profiling. For now, at least, I think the following is a useful start point.

According to the FBI, offender profiling is, a technique for identifying the major personality and behavioural characteristics of an individual based upon an analysis of the crimes he or she has committed” (Douglas, Ressler, Burgess, & Hartman, 1986, p. 405).

I would argue, then, that profiling is perhaps best understood as a series of investigative techniques used to determine the characteristics of an unknown criminal offender. It essentially relies on a basic premise: that an individual’s personality and mannerisms guide their everyday behaviours, including their criminal actions (this is based on important principles in psychology, another topic that will be covered in more depth in this series).

Evaluating evidence found at the scene of a crime, a profiler relates this information to known behaviours and personality attributes derived from past crimes of other criminals who demonstrated similar traits. Utilizing these similarities, a profiler constructs a description, or profile, of what police investigators should characteristically look for in a suspect.

Although this process is approached in different ways, the literature does tend to agree on one key fact. Offender profiling does not provide the identity of the offender. Instead, it indicates the type of person most likely to have committed the crime. In this way profiling can limit or better direct a criminal investigation by providing leads and strategies to aid the team.

Arguably the most important of these is narrowing down the pool of suspects (by means of predicting the offender’s most likely area of residence, previous convictions, bio-psychosocial factors etc.). However profiling can also help predict subsequent crime locations, providing interview suggestions and strategies, assist with case linkage, and perhaps help prevent or predict future crimes (see e.g., Ainsworth, 2000; Ault & Reese, 1980; Douglas et al., 1986; Holmes & De Burger, 1988; Holmes & Holmes, 1996; Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas, 1988).

So, profiling is not the ‘magic bullet’ that some portray it as, but rather a way of potentially assisting with an investigation. The police are excellent at what they do and solve the vast majority of murders and other serious offences using their own expertise. On occasion it may be that extra information can help, and this really is what profiling is about.

Narrowing down a suspect pool can help police focus their efforts and aid the process of investigation. Get a profile wrong, though, and the investigation can be sent in entirely the wrong direction which can have potentially dire consequences.

If you take this into account you can perhaps begin to see why controversies around this subject abound.


Ainsworth, P. B. (2000). Crime analysis and offender profiling. In P. B. Ainsworth (Ed.), Psychology and crime: Myths and reality (pp. 102−120). Harlow: Langford.

Ault, R. L., & Reese, J. T. (1980, March). A psychological assessment of crime: Profiling. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 22−25.

Cook, P. E., & Hinman, D. L. (1999). Criminal profiling: Science and art. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 15(3), 230−241.

Douglas, J. E., Ressler, R. K., Burgess, A. W., & Hartman, C. R. (1986). Criminal profiling from crime scene analysis. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 4(4), 401−421

Douglas, J. E., & Burgess, A. E. (1986, December). Criminal profiling: A viable investigative tool against violent crime. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 9−13.

Egger, S. A. (1999). Psychological profiling: Past, present and future. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 15(3), 242−261.

Holmes, R. M., & De Burger, J. (1988). Serial murder. : Sage Publications, Inc.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (1996). Profiling violent crimes: An investigative tool(2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc.

Homant, R. J., & Kennedy, D. B. (1998). Psychological aspects of crime scene profiling: Validity research. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 25 (3), 319 −343.

Ressler, R. K., Burgess, A. W., & Douglas, J. E. (1988). Sexual homicides patterns and motives. Lexington Books: New York.