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Criminal Profiling Defined

Why do criminals do what they do? Criminal profiling tries to answer that question.
Most people can form an idea of what criminal profiling entails. In movies like Silence of the Lambs and shows like Criminal Minds, investigators piece together clues to come up with a sense of who they should be looking for. In actuality, the portrayals of the practice are not far from the real thing.

What is Criminal Profiling and What is its Purpose?

Criminal profiling, an investigative process used by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), helps investigators examine evidence from crime scenes, victims and witness reports to develop an offender description. Offender profiles can include psychological variables such as:

  • Personality traits
  • Psychopathologies
  • Behavior patterns
  • Demographic variables (e.g., age, race, geographic location)

Investigators might ultimately use profiling or behavioral analysis to narrow down suspects or figure out how to interrogate a suspect already in custody. Criminal profiling also provides law enforcement agencies a better understanding of the motivations and behaviors of serial offenders.

Understanding the Mind Behind the Crime

In the 1970s, FBI National Academy agents were teaching homicide and violent crime courses. They found that police officers nationwide were dealing with similar crime patterns, like victims with the same physical traits, according to Dr. Gregory M. Vecchi, former Chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU). Researchers and FBI agents who taught the courses took notice of the unusual, repetitive patterns during ongoing investigations and were able to connect serial crime, coining the infamous term “serial killer” in the process, said Vecchi in an interview for the podcast, Inside the FBI.

“We want to answer two questions about criminals. We want to answer why do they do things, and we want to understand how do they do things. If we understand the why, if we understand the motivation, that is the first step in understanding behavior.”

The FBI proceeded to expand the behavioral unit to investigate highly violent cases and use the data for more training, research, and consultation purposes.

Between 1971 and 1980, the former BSU provided “profiling” assistance on over 100 investigations of unusual or repetitive violent crimes. By the 1980s, with the approval of President Ronald Reagan, the behavioral-based support reached federal, state, local and international law enforcement agencies.

All the behavioral analysis work that the FBI conducts falls under the NCAVC. Criminologists, or what many have coined “criminal profilers,” continue to assist in investigations and develop prevention and mitigation measures on the part of the victim.

The NCAVC, which supports investigations related to gang crimes, also developed negotiation and conflict techniques for law enforcement officials. What started as a small training department now supports intelligence and military communities, and several behavioral programs now stand alone as units.

  • Behavioral Analysis Unit 1 (Counterterrorism and Counterintelligence)
  • Behavioral Analysis Unit 2 (Threats, Cyber, White Collar Crime, and Public Corruption)
  • Behavioral Analysis Unit 3 (Child Victims)
  • Behavioral Analysis Unit 4 (Adult Victims)
  • Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit (BRIU)

Despite its practicality, criminal profiling today continues to be characterized as a grim and dramatically tense series of events that only take place in dark interrogation rooms. The assumption is in part due to the more artistic approach the media tends to explore with most FBI activities.

Does Criminal Profiling Work?

The techniques used in criminal profiling are a cross between law enforcement and psychology, according to a 2019 article published in Psychology Today. And while profiling practitioners might not agree on methodologies, they generally follow the same steps, gathering as much information as they can and adding the results to a federal database where the computerized algorithms are programmed to increase profiling accuracy.

Accuracy can prove weak at times. When investigators can’t find enough motivational patterns on crimes committed by the same person, linking cases can prove hard, according to an FBI report titled “Pathways to a Serial Investigation.” The report found that despite the difficulty in creating a profile of an offender based solely on motivation, other techniques can help investigators work on serial murder cases. For example, by focusing only on behaviors identified in the crime scene (e.g., placement of objects, body, etc.), law enforcement can have a better insight concerning the activities of violent offenders.

Despite its old origins, criminal profiling is still a new field with new boundaries and questions. And the FBI continues to support research about the methods and accuracies of the technique.

How Do You Become a Criminal Profiler?

Although the term “criminal profiler” isn’t an official job title, the responsibilities of analyzing traits to identify a perpetrator fall under what the FBI and law enforcement refer to as criminologists. These employees typically work for local, state or federal law enforcement agencies.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)* does not have a specific job profile for criminologists; however, they categorize criminologists with sociologists. According to the BLS, sociologist positions typically require a master’s or doctoral degree to develop critical skills needed to analyze criminal behavior and create suspect profiles. Programs that focus on this practice include criminology, sociology and psychology.

In an interview for another Inside the FBI episode, the BAU’s Unit Chief Mark Hilts pointed out that state or local law enforcement investigative experience can be extremely beneficial in the profiling unit. He adds that many agents who have joined the unit are former police officers.

Criminal Profiling Education and Training

With a BA in Applied Psychology with a Concentration in Forensic Psychology, you can review a range of critical issues, including criminal behavior, investigative techniques and victimology. This degree allows you to analyze behavior from the perspectives of sociological, psychological and other interdisciplinary theories. If you’re interested in criminal profiling, the concepts explored in this degree can help you carve a path toward criminology.

If you’re looking for a broader understanding of law and how its applied to criminal profiling, a BA in Criminal Justice can provide the foundation for a career in criminology by covering criminal justice theory, legal concepts, victimology, crime analysis and more.


*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Life, Physical and Social Sciences, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/sociologists.htm (visited February 7, 2020).

National long-term projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth. Degree and/or certificate program options do not guarantee career or salary outcomes. Students should conduct independent research for specific employment information.

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