Criminal profiling techniques

Criminal profiling, or crime profiling, is an investigative technique that involves various fields of knowledge such as psychology, criminology, anthropology, sociology, biology, and geography, applied to criminal investigation. This effective approach focuses on understanding the personality and criminal behavior of crime perpetrators.

Criminal profiling involves a comprehensive analysis of human behavior, combined with the field investigator’s skills. It seeks to create an accurate image of the unknown individual who may have committed one or several crimes, as well as the environment in which they operate. The main objectives of this technique are to support police investigations, identify similar crimes, and provide criminological guidelines. It is primarily used in cases of violent crimes, whether sequential or not, such as homicides, rapes, kidnappings, among others.

In criminal profiling, attempts are made to answer five central questions of criminal investigation: who, when, how, why, and where the crime was committed. This technique is not limited to extreme cases of serial killers and can be applied to a variety of crimes.

The development of this technique dates back to the 1960s when FBI agents founded the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) and began studies to determine the characteristics of serial killers. Later, in the 1980s, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) was created, which collects information on unsolved cases related to serial homicides in the United States.

Since then, Criminal Investigative Analysis has been created, consisting of four phases:

  • Data collection (as much as possible).
  • Crime classification and typification (with data convergence).
  • Crime reconstruction (factual chronology of victim and perpetrator at the time of the crime and recognition of the crime scene).
  • Profiling (physical probabilities, personality, habits, etc.)

Criminal profiling is a professional police investigation technique characterized more as an art than a science, as it is based on deductive logic rather than pre-existing theories. Despite its glamorous portrayal in cinema and media, especially in the United States, this technique alone does not solve crimes. It works in conjunction with field investigations and auxiliary sciences such as forensics, criminology, anthropology, forensic medicine, geography, and psychology of investigation, to narrow down the list of suspects and capture crime perpetrators.

Criminal profiling is a kind of reverse engineering of the crime, where the profiler observes behavior at the crime scene and reconstructs fragments to determine the perpetrator’s personality. It involves creating a physical and psychological portrait of the suspected perpetrator of a crime, as close as possible. This involves thinking and feeling like the criminal to anticipate their movements and capture them.

Although criminal profiling is not limited to serial murders, it is in these types of crimes where it tends to be most significant. Therefore, in each homicide investigation, a meticulous study of forensic reports is conducted, and the crime scene is examined in detail for clues that may lead to the identification of the perpetrator, detailing the probable time of death and its cause, as well as a comprehensive description of the injuries suffered by the victim, including defensive wounds and any indication of sexual violence. Robert Ressler defines it as a technique that allows “mapping the mind of the killer.”

Subsequently, a thorough review of the preliminary investigation report and visual recognition of the crime scene is carried out. This involves accurately describing the arrangement of elements such as the victim’s body, present objects, weapons, projectiles, stains of bodily fluids like blood, semen, urine, feces, among others. The possible presence of signs of struggle, as well as the state of windows and doors (open, closed, or damaged) to determine the possible route of access of the aggressor (internal location), is investigated. Additionally, footprints, tire tracks, and other traces that may provide clues about the perpetrator’s identity are carefully analyzed. If an object has been removed from the crime scene, it is considered that the aggressor may have taken it as a trophy or personal signature, which can provide valuable clues for their identification and capture.

Inductive Method vs. Deductive Method

Brent Turvey has developed a method of profiling called “behavioral evidence analysis,” which uses the deductive method as opposed to the inductive method used by the FBI. The inductive method is the scientific model that draws general conclusions from individual premises. It is characterized by being the most common and following four basic stages:

  • Observation and recording of all facts.
  • Legal, scientific, and police analysis of the facts and their classification.
  • Inductive derivation of a generalization (pattern) from the facts.
  • Contrast/verification through field investigation. In the inductive method, it is observed that crimes committed by different individuals can be similar; hence, offenders share common personality traits.

Common traits are collected from previous crimes, police investigation reports, identified offenders, and other information sources (witnesses, anonymous complaints, etc.). The advantages of the inductive method are: a) lower cost, as it uses already known data; b) faster, as it uses data that have already been categorized; c) does not require specific and profound knowledge in various areas of the sciences.

According to Turvey, it can lead to erroneous conclusions. He claims that the inductive method of criminal profiling collects common traits from previous crimes and various sources of information, offering advantages such as lower cost, speed, and not requiring deep knowledge. However, according to Turvey, it can lead to erroneous conclusions, such as the example that serial killers are predominantly white males who operate within their comfort zone. This method has disadvantages, such as the possible lack of representativeness of the data, its manipulation by authorities, and the possibility of inaccuracies that can result in injustices. In contrast, the deductive method, preferred by Turvey, establishes that the conclusion necessarily follows the premises. This approach, although slower, involves a detailed analysis of the crime scene and collected evidence to develop a psychological profile of the offender. Victimology is crucial in this process, as investigating the victim’s life can reveal clues about the crime’s author. Although the deductive method may be slower, it offers greater accuracy in criminal profiling.

Turvey’s analysis of behavioral evidence (criminal profiling) is based on four phases:

Ambivalent forensic analysis

It is ambivalent because there may be more than one interpretation of the collected evidence, and the most probable one must be assessed. Evidence should include, among others, photos, videos, sketches of the crime scene, investigation reports, crime scene records (reports, surveys, and visual recognition), copies of the forensic report, interviews with witnesses, neighbors, and relatives of the victim, and a map of the victim’s route before the crime and their criminal background.


It is essential to delve into the victim’s life. Knowing how, where, when, and why a particular victim was chosen is key to understanding their aggressor. Therefore, note should be taken of the victim’s physical description, habits, and lifestyle, as they make up the “risk assessment.” The profiler is interested not only in the degree of risk the victim runs thanks to their lifestyle but also the risk they were running at the time of the attack and the risk the aggressor was willing to take.

Crime scene characteristics

Here appear the peculiar characteristics of the crime, according to the aggressor’s attitude towards the victim, the crime scene, and its subsequent significance for the aggressor. This phase includes the method of approach to the victim, the type of attack, the method of control, the type of location, the nature and sequence of any sexual act, the objects used, the verbalized action and the attention paid by the aggressor, the symbolism of the place, etc.

Offender characteristics

It is not definitive, as it requires updating and review as new data emerge. The following characteristic data related to the offender arise: physical type, sex, type of work and habits, feelings of guilt or remorse, type of vehicle, criminal history (background), level of skill, aggressiveness, home/work in relation to the crime scene, medical/psychological history, marital status, and race.

The strength of the deductive profile lies in its insistence on the specificity of each case, avoiding the defects and dangers of applying statistical averages to a particular case. Therefore, the details of each crime analyzed, along with field research, support the profile. Brian Turvey’s deductive premises.

  • No offender acts without motivation.
  • Each crime must be investigated as unique in its behavioral characteristics and motivation.
  • Different offenders may exhibit similar behaviors for entirely different reasons.
  • No two cases are completely alike.
  • Human behavior develops uniquely in response to environmental and biological factors.
  • An offender’s modus operandi may evolve over several crimes.
  • The same offender may have multiple motives for committing several crimes or even for committing a single crime.