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Criminal Profiling
Posted: 25 January 2010 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]
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How would you classify “criminal profiling”?  Is it a science, a psuedoscience, or just plain
voo-doo?  I’m talking about actual criminal profiling, not just pulling someone over in traffic
and harassing them because they’re black (or red or yellow, etc).


buster

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Posted: 25 January 2010 11:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting question. I’d long heard the line “99% of serial killers are white males” over the years, but that is now known to be far from true. There have been many women serial killers, and killers of many different nationalities and ethnicities.

Horror movies about serial killers would show detectives stating to their departments “OK everybody, we’ll be looking for a white male between ages of 30-45…” surely sterotypes like this leave out many good leads in the hunt. Are possible suspects dismissed (in real life, not the movies) if they don’t fit the mold?

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Posted: 25 January 2010 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I could be wrong, but I’ve always looked at it as similar to actuarial work.  Law Enforcement profiling seems to be pretty accurate when it comes to saying things like serial killers are usually white males within a certain age range.  I’ve seen documentaries on the Unabomber where the profile on him seemed to be pretty accurate years before they caught him.  Granted they could have only reported the hits and forgot the misses.  But my gut reaction is that it has some level of accuracy and potential for use above and beyond the woo of “psychic detective” nonsense.  Is it 100%?  Of course not.  Nothing is.  But I don’t think agencies that use it claim it to be or view it as anything more than using known psychological traits based on all the previous similar criminal cases studied over the decades.     

In a similar vein Islamofascist terrorists can usually be profiled to be young single males (often well educated and from a fairly well-to-do family, despite the conventional wisdom claim to the contrary), and it goes without saying that, by definition, they are Muslim.  As Dennis Miller said, “If you know that 15 out of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists are from one country and you happen to notice that, it’s not profiling, that’s minimally observant.”  LOL


This topic begs to be an article in Skeptical Inquirer!

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Posted: 25 January 2010 12:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Not sure either, but I would expect that there is a range of what passes for criminal profiling. No reason it couldn’t be done responsibly, using techniques from abnormal psychology, data mining past events, etc.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Like I said, I could be wrong! grin


Now comes a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool who conclude that FBI profiling of criminals is little more than cold reading and subjective validation at work. This was apparent to many people about ten years ago when Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, was caught and the profile was matched to the man. The FBI said the Unabomber would be in his late 30’s or early 40’s. Kaczynski was 53 when caught. The profile was correct in predicting a white male, though this doesn’t seem like a tough trait to guess.  The FBI said he’d be 5’10” to 6’ tall, 165 pounds, with reddish-blond hair, a thin mustache, and a ruddy complexion. Kaczynski was 5’8”, weighed 143 pounds, had brown hair, pale skin, and was bearded. The profile predicted he would be a blue collar worker with a high school degree. Kaczynski hadn’t had a job in 25 years and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in addition to being a graduate of Harvard University. The FBI profile predicted the Unabomber would be a meticulously organized person, reclusive and having problems dealing with women. Kaczynski was a recluse (again, not a tough call) who apparently did not deal with women at all, but he was slovenly and unkempt. The FBI profile was wrong about almost everything regarding a man they’d been tracking for years.

The Liverpool psychologists argue that profiling won’t work the way the FBI does it.

Source.

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There are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 12:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Difficult topic. I am inclined to agree with Pinker who says that:

The idea that stereotypes are inherently irrational owes more to a condescension toward ordinary people than it does to good psychological research. Many researchers, having shown that stereotypes existed in the minds of their subjects, assumed that the stereotypes had to be irrational, because they were uncomfortable with the possibility that some trait might be statistically true of some group. They never actually checked. That began to change in the 1980s, and now a fair amount is known about the accuracy of stereotypes.

With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assessed against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotyped people themselves.

But, it would be extremely easy for, say, Al Qaeda to recognize the power stereotype profiling and look for people who look nothing like the “typical terrorist.”

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Posted: 25 January 2010 12:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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George - 25 January 2010 12:20 PM

But, it would be extremely easy for, say, Al Qaeda to recognize the power stereotype profiling and look for people who look nothing like the “typical terrorist.”

Would they like to?  Of course they would.  Would it be easy form them to find an elderly blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian female to do their dirty work on a plot for them?  Perhaps a few, but certainly not to the extent of young males who have been doing the majority of their attacks. 

Regardless of who they choose to carry out their terrorist acts, if you are trying to figure out who the actual “brains” behind the operation are, and take it one step back from the mule they convinced to carry the bomb, it’s still going to turn out to be Muslims.  So in that sense, that section of the profiling is still going to be accurate.  Al queada is not just a bunch of criminals.  Criminals commit crimes for a variety of different reasons.  Al qaeda’s very existence is based on an ideology.  That ideology can be studied for certain traits and characteristics which will repeat with some regularity.

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There are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 01:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Rocinante - 25 January 2010 11:56 AM

I could be wrong, but I’ve always looked at it as similar to actuarial work.

That is an interesting way to look at it, as similar to the categories set up by insurance companies. For instance, how a young man’s car insurance rates drop by half, after he gets married. I recall my husband’s joy at receiving the revised insurance bill after our wedding.

I’d also read that it’s almost uncanny, how accurately life insurance companies can “predict” someone’s age of death given their statistical information.

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Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.    - Lex Luthor

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Posted: 25 January 2010 01:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Rocinante - 25 January 2010 12:47 PM

Al qaeda’s very existence is based on an ideology.  That ideology can be studied for certain traits and characteristics which will repeat with some regularity.

Well, the rules or arms race would certainly prove you wrong.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 01:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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All good points.  I have done a lot of reading on the subject and have researched many
individual cases.  I believe criminal profiling to be a “science in the making” in that it is
still in its infancy and can only advance with the advancement of psychology in general,
as we begin to understand more and more about such things and brainwaves, thought
patterns, behavioral patterns and so forth.  Perhaps at this point it should still be termed
a “psuedoscience” with less than fifty percent accuracy but I think it definitely overshoots
“voodoo” or “magical thinking” in that it does attempt to apply reasoning to known facts,
no marbles or tarot cards are required in the process, lol.

Its ironic that you mention al-qaeda as an example, although it is a good example, as is the
unabomber.  Recall though, that Ted K was probably close to forty when he began his tirade
as the unabomber.  Authorities also had a composite drawing of the unabomber which was
drawn up with the help of eye-witnesses whose descriptions also helped to determine the
height and weight of the suspect.  Also, TK was very tedious and intricate in his workings and
writings and probably wasn’t always “unkempt and slovenly”, but most likely, as I see it,
someone with such a degree of insanity, as he aged, it probably became difficult and tiresome
to keep up with his own ideas of “perfection”.  Of course I’m no expert and I’m certainly no
psychiatrist, basically a housewife,
but I can consider how hard it is for me, at 48, to keep up with my own ideas of
“perfection” - the dust piles up more than it used to.


buster

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Posted: 25 January 2010 01:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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serialbuster - 25 January 2010 01:40 PM

All good points.  I have done a lot of reading on the subject and have researched many
individual cases.  I believe criminal profiling to be a “science in the making” in that it is
still in its infancy and can only advance with the advancement of psychology in general,
as we begin to understand more and more about such things and brainwaves, thought
patterns, behavioral patterns and so forth.  Perhaps at this point it should still be termed
a “psuedoscience” with less than fifty percent accuracy but I think it definitely overshoots
“voodoo” or “magical thinking” in that it does attempt to apply reasoning to known facts,
no marbles or tarot cards are required in the process, lol.

If, as you say, it’s a “science in the making”, then it’d be more accurately described as a “protoscience”.

“Pseudoscience” is not a science in the making, but rather something that appears scientific but in fact is not. E.g., phrenology, homeopathy, scientology, Christian Science, etc.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 03:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Interesting.  I would say if there is anything to profiling, it is in in infancy and only the future will tell if is a useful tool. 

Certainly police are not immune to woo thinking.  There simply is no such thing as a “lie detector.”  I have a police officer friend who had to take one prior to joining the force.  (But perhaps it is to weed out those with a guilty conscious who only thinks it works?)  Talks about the future of brain scans and MRIs might come close to being a real lie detector, but the polygraph is noting more than a joke.  You’d have better odds playing Russian Roulette than taking a polygraph. 

I recall Randi writing about an electronic dowsing box offered to police that could search for drugs or whatever else it was “tuned” for - pure nonsense.  Whether any police actually used it I don’t know. 

I also recall the big “Satanic Panic” in the 80s.  I have a book in my library written by police officers who truly believed there was a massive, nation-wide satanitc conspiracy, instead of just a bunch of teens with spray paint and some Ozzy Obourne albums! 

Although to most police officer’s credit, I think most agencies reject the whole “psychic detective” crap.

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There are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 04:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Rocinante - 25 January 2010 03:18 PM

I also recall the big “Satanic Panic” in the 80s.  I have a book in my library written by police officers who truly believed there was a massive, nation-wide satanitc conspiracy, instead of just a bunch of teens with spray paint and some Ozzy Obourne albums! 

Oh do I remember that! Many parents went to PTA meetings about satanic gangs trying to kidnap children. They were handed out pamphlets by the local police department which stated to be on the lookout for children or teens with “mood swings, drug use, depression, shoplifting, emotional withdrawal” which were all signs that they’d become involved in a satanic cult. (Where the pamphlets came from, I’ll never know. Probably some big Christian organization) Of course just about EVERY teenager on the planet exhibits at least one of those “symptoms” so parents were terrified. There are some day-care center workers who are still, to this day, trying to appeal their prison sentences for their “satanic rituals on children!” Some were put away based on hearsay and hypnosis testimony, or testimony from children who’d been “coached” prior to the trial to say they saw animals sacrificed, sex rituals, demons appear, witches flying about…very scary how a good deal of the country was taken in by the hysteria, and innocent people were jailed.

However, policemen handing out pamphlets reminds me of one of my favorite happy memories - my first skeptic moment. In kindergarten, policemen came to our class to talk about bicycle safety. They brought a “talking bicycle” that would answer kid’s questions about stopping at traffic signals, waiting to cross, etc. I watched the presentation for a few minutes, and my little fellow classmates were fascinated with the taking bicycle. Then I got up out of my spot in the circle, pulled the 2-way radio out of the bicycle basket, and announced, “there’s another policeman answering on a walkie-talkie!” to boos from the other kids. Everyone was mad at me for “ruining” the fun, but I was damned proud of myself for figuring out there was something electronic in the basket.  LOL

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Posted: 25 January 2010 05:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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serialbuster - 25 January 2010 11:34 AM

How would you classify “criminal profiling”?  Is it a science, a psuedoscience, or just plain
voo-doo?  I’m talking about actual criminal profiling, not just pulling someone over in traffic
and harassing them because they’re black (or red or yellow, etc).


buster

As a libertarian and 20-year veteran law enforcement officer (investigator), I tend to lean against profiling, with a few exceptions.  For the most part, it is much more helpful in a security context than an investigative context, with the exception of things like serial murderers, etc.

Profiling is only as good as the information you gather, the information that is useful as an investigative tool, and the ability to actually act on it (given legal constraints).  We can be very accurate in some cases, but wildly inaccurate in others, based on presumptions and past experiences.  There was, perhaps not a rush to judgement, but a belief early on the the OKC bombings were the work of Middle Eastern Terrorists, which turned out to be wrong.  This in turn led to more caution than usual (despite evidence) in handling early intel that later let to 911.  One event had a bearing on the other.

On the other hand, in a security context, such as the recent Detroit “Christmas Day” bomber, we see that a wealth of information was available, notwithstanding his father’s expressed concerns, that should have made every red flag in the book go up, yet nothing was done.  Most of us within the community, while respectful of the Bureau (but not so much TSA) were scratching our heads—if you can’t get that guy, who can you get?  We understand however, how such a thing can happen in a bureaucracy.  Once you’ve worked in one, you can TOTALLY see that happening. 

The information was in such bits and pieces and required so many levels to act on, that he slipped through the cracks (gutters).  In that case it wasn’t useful at all and will continue to not be useful. 

For serial killers and unsolved murders, yes, I think it can be a good tool to narrow the suspects down.  For every day police work (as I did earlier in my career), profiling is a matter of daily life and experience.  You do not act on it so much, as you respect the fact that some of your suspicions reveal themselves upon a “stop” or arrest, etc.  However, you do not act on suspicions or “hunches” (nor should you) as a cop. 

You all might find statement analysis very interesting.  You can search for it on the web, or I can try to link some info.  It is one of our better tools once certain suspects have been identified.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 05:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Rocinante - 25 January 2010 03:18 PM

Interesting.  I would say if there is anything to profiling, it is in in infancy and only the future will tell if is a useful tool. 

Certainly police are not immune to woo thinking.  There simply is no such thing as a “lie detector.”  I have a police officer friend who had to take one prior to joining the force.  (But perhaps it is to weed out those with a guilty conscious who only thinks it works?)  Talks about the future of brain scans and MRIs might come close to being a real lie detector, but the polygraph is noting more than a joke.  You’d have better odds playing Russian Roulette than taking a polygraph. 

I recall Randi writing about an electronic dowsing box offered to police that could search for drugs or whatever else it was “tuned” for - pure nonsense.  Whether any police actually used it I don’t know. 

I also recall the big “Satanic Panic” in the 80s.  I have a book in my library written by police officers who truly believed there was a massive, nation-wide satanitc conspiracy, instead of just a bunch of teens with spray paint and some Ozzy Obourne albums! 

Although to most police officer’s credit, I think most agencies reject the whole “psychic detective” crap.

We do.  I’ve only seen “psychic detective” crap on TV. Never heard of it at my old department, my agency now, nor any that I have ever worked with.

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Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Democrat):

“It’s a free country; I wish it weren’t, but it’s a free country.” when speaking of a rally on the Capitol.

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Posted: 25 January 2010 05:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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UlsterScots, I’m interested in learning more about “false confessions” that I’ve been reading so much about. Not under “torture” but from people who have been kept awake for long periods, frightened into accepting a guilty plea because they fear they’ll be found guilty at trial and face a worse sentence, etc. I’ve heard a lot about how this is being investigated more often, and how people who are completely innocent can be duped into confessing through psychological means. While I could sit here and insist that I would NEVER confess to something I did not do, I might feel very differently having been kept awake or detained for more than 24 hours, etc., so I should not judge so quickly. Curious on your take on this, given your career in law enforcement.

For example, this article http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200304/the-false-confession

[ Edited: 25 January 2010 05:47 PM by Jules ]
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