Profiling is the process of developing descriptions of the traits and characteristics of unknown offenders in specific criminal cases. It is often used in situations for which authorities have no likely suspect. There are two basic varieties of profiling: inductive, which involves the development of a profile based on known psychological typology; and deductive profiling, which reasons exclusively from the details of the victim and crime scene to develop a unique profile. Profiling as a law enforcement tool emerged in the late 1960s, and today, the leading entity engaged in profiling is the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Profiling should not be confused with racial profiling. Racial profiling, a topic surrounded with considerable controversy, came to the forefront in the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of activists and social scientists maintained that law enforcement officials tended to single out African Americans, particularly young males, for arrest and abuse. After the September, 2001, terrorist attacks, random searches and other forms of attention directed toward against Middle Eastern males were also decried in some quarters as racial profiling.

In contrast to the socially explosive topic of racial profiling, criminal profiling—while it may be controversial among law enforcement authorities and forensic scientists, not all of whom agree on its merits or the proper approach to it—is not controversial in society at large. In fact, television programs concerning crime, as well as dramatic portrayals in popular films have raised considerable public interest in profiling. Thanks to this interest, leading profilers are well-known outside the law-enforcement community.

Misconceptions. Indicative of this popularity was the prominence given to profiling opportunities on a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page in the employment section of the FBI's Web site in 2003. Alone among FBI specialties, profiling was featured with the question "I just want to be an FBI 'profiler.' Where do I begin the application process?" As the bureau noted in its response, "You first need to realize the FBI does not have a job called 'Profiler.'" The answer went on to discuss the NCAVC, located at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. The FBI also noted on the site that "these FBI Special Agents [involved in profiling] don't get vibes or experience psychic flashes while walking around fresh crime scenes. [Instead, profiling] is an exciting world of investigation and research… "

Two varieties of profiling. Criminal profiling originated from the work of FBI special agents Howard Teten and Pat Mullany in the late 1960s. It is especially used in cases involving serial killers, who usually are not personally acquainted with their victims. Most murders involve people who know one another, and in most murder investigations, likely suspects can be readily identified. For example, if a married woman is murdered, her husband often quickly becomes the focus of police investigation. If, however, there is nothing to suggest that a victim has been murdered by someone he or she knows, or if the victim's identity is unknown, profiling may be necessary in order to develop a set of leads for investigators.

Criminal profilers make use of two types of reasoning, which, in the view of some profiling experts, constitute two schools of thought. Inductive criminal profiling, like the larger concept of induction in the philosophical discipline of epistemology (which is concerned with the nature of knowledge) develops its portrait of a suspect based on the results gathered from other crime scenes. Inductive criminal profiles draw on formal and informal studies of known criminals, on the experience of the profiler, and on publicly available data sources, to provide guidance.

By contrast, deductive criminal profiling relies purely on information relating to the crime scene, the victim, and the evidence. Instead of drawing on the facts of other crimes, the deductive profile draws only on the information relating to the crime in question. For instance, if a search of the crime scene reveals that the killer had smoked an expensive variety of cigar, this would lead the deductive profiler to posit that the killer was wealthy and probably well educated. The profiler working through pure deduction would not, however, seek to compare this fact with information on other killers in the past who had smoked expensive cigars.

NCAVC and VICAP. FBI profilers are supervisory special agents with NCAVC. In order to be considered for the program, an individual must have served as an FBI special agent for three years. However, due to high competition for placement in the program, individuals selected usually have eight to 10 years of experience with the bureau. Newly assigned personnel typically undergo a structured training program of more than 500 hours. Alongside these special agents work other, civilian, personnel in positions that include intelligence research specialist, violent crime resource specialist, and crime analyst. It is their job to research violent crime from a law enforcement perspective, and to provide support to NCAVC special agents.

In addition to developing criminal profiles, NCAVC provides major case management advice and threat assessment services to law-enforcement officials around the nation and the world. Special agents may also provide law enforcement officials with strategies for investigation, interviewing, and prosecution. Among the services provided by NCAVC to the law enforcement community at large is VICAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

VICAP is a nationwide data information center tasked with collecting, collating, and analyzing information on violent crimes, particularly murder. Cases eligible for VICAP include solved or unsolved homicides or attempts, especially ones involving an abduction; apparently random, motiveless, or sexually oriented homicides; murders that are known or suspected to be part of a series (i.e., serial murder); unresolved missing persons cases, particularly those in which foul play is suspected; and unidentified dead bodies for whom the manner of death is known or suspected to be homicide.

Local law enforcement agencies participating in VICAP are able to draw on its information database in solving crimes. For example, if a murder were committed with a rare variety of handmade pistol, VICAP could be consulted for information on other cases involving such a weapon. Once a case has been entered into the VICAP database, it is compared continually against all other entries on the basis of certain aspects of the crime. VICAP has been used to solve a number of homicides nationwide.



Ainsworth, Peter B. Offender Profiling and Crime Analysis. Portland, OR: Willan, 2001.

Evans, Collin. The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World's Most Baffling Crimes. New York: Wiley, 1996.

Holmes, Ronald M. Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool. Newbury Park, England: Sage Publications, 1989.

Turvey, Brent E. Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1999.


Federal Bureau of Investigation. < > (May 4, 2003).


FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Forensic Science
Intelligence and Counter-Espionage Careers
Justice Department, United States

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