What is Criminal Profiling?

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Criminal profiling is the act of developing a psychological profile of an offender based on the state of the crime scene. Profiling is most often done by a forensic psychologist -- someone who has studied the criminal mind. This profile can then be used by police departments to assist in apprehending the criminal.

Criminal profiling looks for clues at crime scenes.
Criminal profiling looks for clues at crime scenes.

A profile is a psychological sketch of an offender. There is a lot that a crime scene can tell a forensic psychologist about the person who committed the crime. This is especially true in homicide investigations. Profiling is often used to help investigators catch psychopaths and serial killers that may otherwise go free. It can also be used to help catch other types of offenders, such as arsonists and rapists.

Criminal profiling is often a vital tool leading to an arrest.
Criminal profiling is often a vital tool leading to an arrest.

In criminal profiling, a crime scene helps to label the perpetrator as organized, disorganized, or mixed. An organized offender plans ahead, picking out the victim ahead of time. Any tools needed are brought by the offender. He is meticulous with details, and it is clear that the crime was well thought out ahead of time. This tells a forensic psychologist a lot about the criminal.

Organized offenders tend to be high in the birth order of their family, usually an oldest child. They are very intelligent, and usually have their lives together, but a series of stressful situations caused them to act out. Most of them have a live-in partner, are socially adept, and will follow the coverage of their crimes in the media very carefully.

A spontaneous offense is often the work of a disorganized offender. He will often depersonalize the victim, to make the crime less real and allowing him to remain detached throughout the course of the crime. There is very little conversation, if any, between the offender and victim, and the crime scene has a random and sloppy feel to it. Profiling makes it possible to draw many conclusions about this offender, too. Disorganized offenders are often of average or slightly below-average intelligence, for instance. They are younger children, live alone, and are not as socially mature as an organized offender. They often live or work near the scene of the crime, and have a poor work history.

A mixed offender is harder to profile, but it is still possible. The crime scene combines characteristics of both organized and disorganized offenders. For example, the offender may have provided his own tools, but picked a victim randomly. The profile of a mixed offender may not be as accurate as other profiles, giving police less to go on.

Criminal profiling is used not only to find potential offenders, but also to narrow down a list of offenders that has already been compiled by the police. Although it doesn’t work in every case, criminal profiling has helped investigators to apprehend hundreds of criminals. By assessing the patterns and motives of previous criminals, profiling allows investigators to fairly accurately predict the characteristics of current and future offenders, allowing killers and other perpetrators to be caught before they can continue on to other crimes.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal wiseGEEK writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

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Discussion Comments


Well, this is an amazing article. It really gave me a bigger inside look into the organized and disorganized unsub's mind. (yeah I use the word unsub because it works). I'm giving a Powerpoint to the whole school on this subject because it is what I do best!


They act like the show "Criminal Minds" can't be a real ethic, when it can.


From what I understand by watching "Criminal Minds," there is a thin line between profilers and detectives. Profiling is used in the types of serial killings since for individual killings, a profile cannot be drawn because they don't have sufficient work for profiling. Profiling is based on the psychology of the suspect, but detective work is based on observation and deduction. The difference can be clearly seen when you compare "Criminal Minds" with "Sherlock" or "Psych."


I too enjoy "Criminal Minds" and in my mind, being a criminal profiler is an amazing opportunity. The younger generation also should realize how much work it takes and how grateful we should be.


Law enforcement is one who sets others up to commit a crime when there are no other options. So true. It happens to individuals who have lived honest lives and never had the intent to commit a crime.


@ ValleyFiah- Once you are a special agent then you can apply for a position in the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), Child Abduction and Serial Murder Investigative Resource Center (CASMIRC), or Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP).

To get into the BAU you should work towards an advanced degree in psychology, conflict resolution, sociology, criminology, or another behavioral science discipline. This will give you the credentials necessary to proceed to training at the BAUs Behavioral Science Unit Academy where you will learn to be an FBI criminal profiler. You can also work your way through the ranks of your field office and make supervisor to give you a shot at joining the BAU.


@ ValleyFiah- The pinnacle of criminal profiling is working for one of the three divisions of the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes (NCVAC). This is the division of the FBI showcased in the movie Silence of the Lambs.

To become a member of one of these units you must first become an FBI special agent. To become an FBI special agent you must possess a four year degree, have three years of professional work experience, possess a valid driver’s license, pass a background check, pass an FBI physical, qualify for one of the five FBI special agent entry programs, and finally pass one of the critical skills examination areas. This is a tall order for anyone.


I enjoyed this article. One of my favorite television shows is Criminal Minds; a show about FBI criminal profiling. Criminal profiling seems like the ultimate detective work. Piecing together a criminal’s psychological profile through behavioral analysis, and crime scene evidence is like a game of chess. Profilers analyze everything, and the criminals are trying to stay one step ahead. I wonder what it would take to start a career in criminal profiling.

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