Archive for criminal psychology

Criminal Psychology

Posted in criminal psychology, police, psychology, security with tags , , , on August 19, 2010 by tholath

It’s really amazing how a team of FBI agents in the hit TV series criminal minds solve crimes by analyzing the behavior of the criminal. Specially when they have no solid suspects at their disposal.. the portal of this is done nicely and it keeps the fans just glued to the screens.. right.. but to tell you the truth most of it is not so easy like what it shows on the screen..

On America online Paul D. Rosevear quotes “The growing fascination with the hit primetime TV thriller, ‘Criminal Minds,’ has many of the show’s 16.8 million viewers asking themselves if a career in criminal psychology is right for them. On the show, the main characters form a behavioral analysis unit composed of criminal psychologists who use their knowledge of the criminal mind to catch perpetrators before they are able to strike again. So just how does one go about reading the criminal mind?”

He further states “The cast of ‘Criminal Minds’ makes such reasoning, behavioral analysis, and criminal psychology look like a thrilling career for anybody with a fascination for investigating illegal activity. But the reality isn’t as neat and tidy as the show makes it seem.”

So I just thought I would try to bring some light on the topic of this “profiling” mania.

As a fan of the show I am now on the fifth season and it really keeps my hours occupied. But as a psychology student and also a criminology student I just had to dig a little deeper to know the science behind the concept of “behavioral analysis” or in other words “criminal psychology”.


If anybody was asked the question ‘what do criminal psychologists do in there everyday working life?, what would be the answer… ??? the logical answer could be that the main role of such a discipline would be helping police catch criminals or engaging in the ‘profiling’ of offenders..

The work of criminal psychologists, while they may be true for a small number, do not represent the wide variety of roles that those trained in criminal psychology can, and do, work. From assisting the police in the investigations, providing advice on interviewing of suspects or witnesses, working as expert witnesses in court cases, working in the rehabilitation of offenders, conducting criminal psychology research or working in academia, the work of criminal psychologists is varied and wide reaching.

However in this literature I will only discuss on the introductory part of the aspect. I would in future posts will write on the details of the science behind it.

What is criminal psychology?

The term ‘criminal psychology’ has been defined in a number of ways. Even today there is no accepted definition.  But as a general definition one can say, Criminal psychology is a branch of the field of psychology which focuses on criminals. Criminal psychologists can engage in a number of activities related to criminal investigations, ranging from creating profiles of offenders or victims based on available information to conducting psychological testing of people on trial for various crimes.

Researchers in criminal psychology are interested in what makes people commit criminal acts, ranging from the childhood environments of serial killers to the psychological pressures which lead people to rob banks to deal with financial problems. They are also interested in the ways in which criminals deal with the aftermath of a crime, including criminals who choose to run or act up in court.

In 1981 professor Lionel Harward, one of the UK’s founding fathers of criminal psychology described the four roles that psychologists may perform when they become professionally involved in criminal proceedings. They are:

  1. Clinical: in this situation the psychologist will be usually be involved in the assessment of an individual in order to provide a clinical judgment. The psychologists could use interviews, assessments tools or psychometric tests (special questionnaires) to aid in his or her assessment. Meaning that a psychologist for example may be asked to asses individuals in order to determine whether they are fit to stand trial or whether they have a mental illness which may mean that they would not understand the proceedings.
  2. Experimental: this can involve the psychologist performing research in order to inform a case. (for example, how likely it is that someone can correctly identify an object in the hand of an individual from a distance of 100 meters at twilight).
  3. Actuarial: in this instance the word ‘actuarial’ relates to the use of statistics in order to inform a case. ( for example a court may wish to know how likely an offender is to reoffend before the sentence is decided. In such a case, a psychologist could be called upon in order to inform the pre-sentence report to the court.
  4. Advisory: in this role the psychologist may provide advice to the police about how to proceed with an investigation. For an example, an offender’s profile could inform the investigation or advice could be provided about how best to interview a particular suspect. Advice can also be given to the lawyers on how to cross-examine a vulnerable witness or another expert witness.

As you have understood the area is so wide.

Criminal Investigations

The role of a psychologist in criminal investigation can take a number of forms. Professor Laurence Alison of the University of Liverpool has suggested a number of ways to which the expertise of a psychologist could aid the police.

“It is important to appreciate that the ways which psychologists can contribute extends well beyond the process of profiling offenders. Indeed the apprehension of the offender would be assisted by enhancing police decision making and leadership skills, improving methods of interviewing witnesses and victims, developing accurate methods of recording, collating and analyzing data on pre-convictions of offenders, developing suspect prioritization systems based on empirical research and enhancing intelligence-led policing and the use of informants” -Alison-

Crime analysis

Crime analysis or sometimes called as intelligence analysis is a filed of work which draws upon criminal psychological methods.

One of the most common roles of crime analysts is that of the case linkage. This process involves the linkage of crimes based on the similarities in the behaviors of the offender as reported by the victim or as inferred from the crime scene. For example, let us examine a rape case committed by a stranger on a women walking home alone after a night with her friends. Crime analysts could use the details of this case- the fact that she had just left a late night party, that the rapist took some of her clothing away from the scene with him. And the content of the threats used towards the women- in order check against an already established database of similar crimes to see whether there are any similarities to past crimes. If matches are found- the same threats were used, similar items of clothing taken by a rapist, and it was a close geographical location to another rape- then this information can be used by the police to investigate the potential that the same individual offender has committed both crimes. This further allows the focusing of the resources of the investigation in order to avoid duplication of work.

Offender profiling or criminal investigative analysis

Offender profiling has received a great deal of attention from the media in recent years. Media reporting of the utilization of criminal psychologists in high profile cases has introduced the general public to the notion of offender profile. While this has raised the profile of the filed, it could be argued that the sensational portrayal of profiling has resulted in a general confusion of what profiling actually is. How often it is done and who does it. This uncertainty amongst the public is no altogether surprising however, as there is an absence of an agreed definition of the term ‘profiling’, even in academic circles.

In general we can say that the profiling uses information gleaned from the crime scene relating to the offenders behavior during the crime. This can be pooled with the information, such as victim statements (if available), in order to draw conclusions about the nature of the person who committed the crime. Was the crime planned meticulously or was it impulsive? Does the offender live locally to the crime scene? What age range is the offender likely to fall in to? What gender is the offender? This information can be used to aid the police in investigations and in targeting recourses.

Interviewing, detecting deception and eyewitness research

One of the most important tasks during an investigation is the collection of reliable evidence in order to put together a case of what happened during the event in question. One of the main sources of this is the people who were eyewitness to the event. To gain this information, an interview needs to be conducted by the investigating officers with the aim of gaining as much accurate information from the witness as possible. In addition, once a suspect has been identified he or she has to be interviewed in order to gain his or her view of events and possibly to extract a confession to the crime. Hence the interview (whether a witness or suspect) and the manner in which it is conducted can be crucial to a case.

Therefore, when you think of the process (those relating to memory and the retrieval of the memory) that are involved in the interview situation, that the psychologists have been interested in this area for years. Given research findings such as those that state that the recall of events by witness can be manipulated by the interviewer (either intentionally or unintentionally- for example by the type of questions asked), it is clear that those carrying out the interviews need to receive training in how to conduct the interviews appropriately. Psychologists have been instrumental in developing guidance and advice on how best to interview witness suspects.

The police can also use psychologists in order to gain advice on how to interview particular types of witnesses or suspects. And research can be conducted on that. This research performed by criminal psychologists investigating the detection of deception also has useful application for the police when interviewing witnesses and in particular suspects.

Expert witness

Court cases can involve complex issues including the presentation of information that is judged beyond the knowledge of the average layperson who may sit on a jury. In such situations, the court permits the calling of an expert witness who, by definition, has an expertise relating to the issue in question. Under these circumstances expert witnesses are permitted to provide their opinion (rather than the facts) on the issue being discussed. The way the expert witnesses are called to the court, however, varies from jurisdiction to another. For example, in some countries within Europe, an expert witness is called by the court itself in order to provide information as and when it is needed. But in the UK and USA, the expert is instructed by either the defense or prosecution on order to provide extra strength for their version of events.

The use of the psychologists as an expert witness has in the past been constricted by the notion of the expert having to provide information that is beyond the knowledge of the average person. Historically then, the admissibility of a psychologist’s opinion was often limited to providing evidence relating to mental impartment or the psychological functioning of an individual. However in recent years, the psychologist’s expertise has been increasingly recognized and can now be called upon as evidence in relation to a wide variety of issues. Some examples of these are the impact of interviewing techniques on a suspect or witness, the reliability of eyewitness testimony the clinical assessment of a suspect or witness, or the use of profiling techniques during interviews.