Criminal profiling—also referred to as criminal investigative analysis—occupies the intersection of psychology and law enforcement. These specialists untangle the behaviors, emotions, and personalities of suspected criminal offenders, basing their judgments on time-tested experience in investigative techniques with learned emotional detachment and patience. Although this career in often conflated with forensic psychology, they are distinct career paths. Psychology Today reports that criminal profilers typically have an extensive background in criminal justice and law enforcement as opposed to mental health training. Still, formal education in psychology is common, particularly for leaders in the field or those at top-notch organizations.
So what’s the history of this career which has inspired countless movies and TV dramas? The American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that early criminal profiling was used in the 1880s when British doctors George Phillips and Thomas Bond attempted to make inferences about the personality of Jack of Ripper. The formal emergence of the discipline, however, didn’t occur until 1972 when the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) was created. This organization began to investigate the rising tide of serial rapes and homicides across the U.S. through the examination of four crucial aspects of suspected criminals’ behavior: antecedent (i.e., before the crime occurred) tendencies, manner of crime, body disposal method, and post-crime comportment. Since then, the techniques of criminal investigative analysis have become more sophisticated, allowing the FBI to develop offender profiles in a range of crimes such as arson, hostage-taking, terrorism, child abduction, white collar crime, kidnappings, extortion, cybercrime, and serial sexual homicide, to name a few (FBI).
Before getting started, it’s important to mention that there are very few job opportunities available in criminal profiling. In fact, most of these professionals get their start as criminal investigators or experienced detectives and choose to transition into the role with extra training and employer demand. There are few crimes committed in the U.S. that require the skills and knowledge of a criminal profiler, and the scarcity of openings reflects this. Please note that people with graduate-level forensic psychology degrees may be more likely to become jury consultants, juvenile offenders counselors, expert witnesses, or professors in forensic psychology.
Read on to discover what to expect from this profession with respect to job responsibilities, as well as how to become a criminal profiler.
In an effort to elucidate the professional scope and responsibilities of criminal investigative analysts, the FBI produced a four-part series of articles detailing the relevant characteristics, skills, and formal training typical of successful profilers. Please note that these studies refer to profilers as criminal investigative analysts.
First, researchers identified a number of traits which are endemic to the discipline, including:
Among these, having investigative experience was one of the most crucial contributors to a professional’s competency, and therefore it may be advisable to work in law enforcement prior to becoming a criminal investigative analyst.
Second, the FBI has detailed the role of criminal profilers within law enforcement organizations worldwide. Rather than becoming directly involved in the investigation, these professionals may work at a distance, giving evidence-based advice to law enforcement by conducting:
There are a variety of educational, experiential, and career paths to becoming a criminal profiler. Some of these aspiring professionals choose to enter a criminal profiler program while others join the ranks of law enforcement to cut their teeth on real-world experience in investigations. The FBI notes that there’s no true consensus in the field or literature for how people join this stimulating field. That said, ideally a candidate in criminal profiling has a mix of both formal didactic and empirical field training.
Here is one possible path to becoming a criminal profiler:
For example, Houston offers the Volunteer Initiatives Program (VIP) to qualified high school students across segments of its police department, and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provides similar opportunities. Interested students are encouraged to check with their local police department for internships and other openings to get experience in forensics, investigations, and criminal detection work.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) offers a competitive criminal profiling program which was developed in 1986. The aim of this program is to train behavioral profilers to support mainly arson and bombing investigations, involving hands-on training in investigative strategy, interviewing techniques, crime analysis, search warrant procedures, the delivery of expert testimony in court, and more. Upon completion of the intensive program, the prospective profilers become certified in criminal behavioral analysis.
Another prestigious program is the International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellowship (ICIAF) which accepts candidates from law enforcement agencies all over the world and comprises two sections: criminal investigative analysis and geographic profiling analysis. Please note that this is very competitive and accepts few candidates, who must have a minimum of 10 years experience, annually.
Finally, for those lucky enough to be admitted to the FBI’s elite BSU and/or the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, initial training is 500 hours or more, in addition to the expectation that profilers will join various professional organizations and attend conferences to keep their knowledge contemporary. For additional information on criminal profiler education, check out ForensicsColleges’ criminal profiler programs page.
Above all, there are varied paths to becoming a criminal profiler, but the consensus is that having extensive investigative experience (i.e., working in law enforcement) is one of the typical cornerstones of becoming a successful criminal investigative analyst.