When The Washington Post ran the first national story about FBI profiling in 1984, no one outside of law enforcement recognized the term.
Since I wrote that story, “profiling” has taken on a pejorative meaning: To “profile” is to single out someone for law enforcement attention because of race or ethnicity.
In fact, that is neither good profiling nor good law enforcement. To get the latest on how profiling really works, I interviewed Mark A. Hilts, who heads the FBI’s unit that develops profiles to help solve crimes against adults.
When I interviewed profilers in 1984 in the basement of the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., there were just four of them — Roger Depue, John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood, and Robert Ressler.
Now the FBI has 28 such agents housed in an unmarked office building near Quantico in Stafford, Va. And television shows like CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and “CSI” routinely feature profilers helping to catch bad guys.
“There are certainly racial profiling issues, connotations from police traffic stops, which has never had anything to do with what we do,” Hilts tells me in one of the few interviews he has given since becoming chief of the profiling unit in 2003. “We look at a crime that has been committed, looking at characteristics of that crime, and interpreting the behavior that we see in that crime. We help to guide the law enforcement investigators towards the resolution of that crime.”
Hallmarks of the Profiler
Whatever they do, criminals and non-criminals act in particular ways. Some writers, for instance, use computers, others pen and paper. Some write in the morning, some at night. Each writer has a distinct style, with variations in grammar, sentence structure, and voice.
In the same way, criminals carry out their crimes in their own characteristic ways. Their actions, rather than their words, betray who they are. By reading those signs, profilers can often determine from the crime scene the kind of person who committed the crime and the fantasies that propelled him, in effect reading the perpetrator’s signature.
In some respects, profiling is simply good detective work.
Profilers look at every aspect of the crime, including interviews, photographs, investigative reports, autopsy reports, and laboratory reports. What sets profiling apart from good police work is that the conclusions are based on patterns that emerge by matching the characteristics of thousands of crime scenes found in similar cases with the characteristics of the actual perpetrators who are later apprehended.
Besides forensics and information gleaned from witnesses and other interviews, profilers look at motivation.
“Why was this particular victim the target of this crime at this particular time?” Hilts says. “We kind of get into the mind of the offender. And not in any kind of psychic manner, but just through understanding criminals and why they commit the crimes they do. How does the criminal gain control of his victim? How does he manipulate the victim? How does he maintain control? How does he select his victim in the first place?”
With a profile, investigators can narrow a search and begin focusing on one or two individuals. At times, profiles are so uncannily accurate as to seem clairvoyant. When police found the mutilated torsos of two teenagers floating in a river, they identified them as a boy and girl who had been missing. The profile the FBI drew up said the killer was a male in his 40s who knew the children.
He probably led a macho lifestyle, wore western boots, often hunted and fished, and drove a four-wheel vehicle. He was self-employed, divorced several times, and had a minor criminal record.
With the profile, the police focused on the children’s stepfather, who fit the description perfectly but had not previously been a suspect. They were able to develop enough additional information from witnesses to convict him of murders the following year.
No Stone Unturned
The FBI had found that a murderer careful enough to dispose of a body in a river is usually more sophisticated and often an older person. If the body is dumped in a remote area, the killer is probably an outdoors person with knowledge of the area. When the slashes on the victim’s body are vicious and directed at the sex organs, the assailant often knows the person.
If there is no sign of forced entry and the assailant stayed around at the crime scene to have a snack after killing the victim, the assailant probably lived in the neighborhood and knew the victim. In contrast, killers who don’t feel comfortable in an apartment leave immediately.
Thus, based on a few elementary facts, the FBI can draw a profile of the killer as an older man who likes the outdoors, is familiar with the area where the body was left, knows the victim, and lived in the neighborhood.
Using such analysis, the FBI over the years has helped solve thousands of cases so that serial murderers and serial rapists could not strike again.
To supplement their knowledge, FBI profilers interviewed offenders in prison. They began with assassins — Sirhan Sirhan, Sarah Jane Moore, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
At one point, Bob Ressler was interviewing Edmund E. Kemper III, who had killed his mother, grandparents, and six other people. Kemper was serving multiple life sentences in California. Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” was actually a composite of serial killers like Kemper, who removed people's heads and saved them as trophies; Edward Gein, who decorated his home with human skin; and Richard T. Chase, who ate the organs of his victims.
As outlined in my book “The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI,” when he was finished talking with Kemper in his cell just off death row, Ressler rang a buzzer to summon a guard to let him out. When the guard didn’t come, the 295-pound prisoner told Ressler to “relax.” He said the guards were changing shifts and delivering meals.
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“If I went ape-s**t in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you?” said Kemper menacingly. “I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.”
Ressler was able to cool Kemper off by suggesting that he might have a concealed weapon. After that, agents only interviewed inmates in pairs. And contrary to the impression created by Jodie Foster’s role in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the FBI would never send a trainee to interview anyone.
Now profilers are divided into three Behavioral Analysis units within the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Unit No. 1 works terrorists and other threats. Hilts’ Unit No. 2 is devoted to analyzing crimes against adults. Unit No. 3 focuses on crimes against children.
In developing a profile, the agents look at such clues as whether an offender has communicated with either law enforcement or the media.
“We look at any number of different types of activities that the offenders might engage in, either at the crime scene or after the crime scene,” Hilts says. “What that is telling us is that the murders themselves or the rape or whatever the crime is, is not enough to totally resolve that offender’s fantasies or the needs that he has, that he needs to communicate, or he needs to pose the bodies, or leave certain objects behind in the crime scene in the furtherance of his fantasies and the furtherance of his needs.”
If a profile seems to point to one individual, it doesn’t mean that person is necessarily guilty, Hilts says.
“Anything that we give investigators is not probable cause to go out and arrest someone, or to target someone to the exclusion of all others,” he says. “And one of the things we remind them is, just because we say here’s what we think is the direction you should go, don’t abandon the rest of your investigation. Don’t focus on this person just exclusive to all others.”
But the profiling program — started by FBI agent Howard Teten — has been so successful at steering investigators to the right suspect that the FBI cannot handle all the requests for help. While some of the profiles are for FBI cases, most are for other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Rather than use the term profiling, the profilers prefer to say they engage in criminal investigative analysis. That is because, besides developing profiles, the analysts offer a range of other advice, including personality assessments and interview techniques tailored to a particular offender.
Last year, the profilers offered assistance in more than 700 cases. About 150 of them entailed going to the site of the crime. About 10 percent of the cases resulted in written profiles.
“We might have a situation where we look at a series of cases and advise police that we think this particular offender, based on the activity that we see, has not committed a crime for the first time,” says Hilts, who was a police officer in Plano, Texas, before joining the FBI in 1987. “Maybe they need to look around, maybe they need to talk to other jurisdictions and see if they have some similar type crimes.”
The profilers also offer advice on smoking-out an offender.
“Sometimes we advise them to provide the media with specific information, maybe providing some behavioral clues, maybe providing some what of what we refer to as post-offense behavior,” Hilts says.
For example, an offender may leave town for an unexplained reason or begin drinking excessively. That may be the way he reacts after committing a horrific murder.
“Maybe he’s never cleaned his car in 20 years, but someone sees him cleaning out his trunk with a watering hose,” Hilts says. “And sometimes putting things like that into a media release, saying these are the type of things you might be looking for generates a phone call that ends up leading to a successful resolution.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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