A brief Guide to Criminal Profiling

Despite the depictions of Hollywood, criminal profiling is not a recent, sci-tech addition to the world of criminal justice. In fact, criminal profiling has been around for hundreds of years! Almost as soon as there was crime people began looking for ways to catch criminals and predict who would commit a crime. Thinkers in the field of criminal justice began thinking of ways to develop measuring “profiles” of criminals, helping law enforcement detect and track lawbreakers.

In the 1800s Cesare Lombroso became the father of criminal anthropology, reports the Italian Ministry of Justice. In the mid-1800s Italy was plagued with crime and “banditry,” and Lombroso became intrigued with the idea of determining which individuals had an innate tendency toward criminality. In the 1860s he studied the tattoos of soldiers to try and understand the nature of criminality, and in the 1870s he became famous for his studies on phrenology, or the shapings of the human skull. In 1872 Lombroso declared that the criminally violent and insane had different skull features than non-criminals, claiming that such skulls were atavistic features of more primitive times. Lombroso’s theory of atavistic criminality was published in 1876. Though it has long since been disproven that criminals are “throwbacks” to more primitive and violent eras of human evolution, Lombroso remains a historic figure in the scientific study of criminality.

Shortly after Lombroso came Dr. Thomas Bond in London. Katherine Ramsland reports that the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper terrorized London in 1888, preying on prostitutes. When Bond was approached by authorities to do the autopsies, he also provided educated deductions about the murderer based on the attacks on the victims. Based on the injuries, he knew that the killer was physically strong and, due to the amount of blood, would have to own a full-length, dark-colored coat. The man would be cool and calm in demeanor, though was clearly not of sound mind.

According to The New Yorker, modern criminal profiling can be traced back to the 1950s when New York law enforcement approached psychiatrists to try and catch the “Mad Bomber,” a bomb-maker who had been terrorizing the city since 1940. Local psychiatrist James Brussel began trying to decipher which of his patients could be the mysterious bomber, analyzing character traits, statistics, and even handwriting samples. Brussel’s deductions led to George Metesky, who was arrested.

The evolution of criminal profiling has thus moved from physical measurements to post-mortem surgical analysis to psychiatric evaluation. Today, criminal profiling focuses on mental health evaluation as a way to predict possible violence and deviance from individuals.