“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
That’s the tagline for Mindhunter, a new Netflix series based on John Douglas’ book Mind Hunter: Inside FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The show is set in the 1970s and examines the history and techniques of criminal profilers as they attempt to get inside the heads of serial killers.
As the model for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs, Douglas has become a legendary figure in law enforcement by studying and interviewing infamous murderers including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein.
For decades, countless movies and TV shows have glamorized the agents who practice criminal profiling — predicting a criminal’s personality, behavioral, and demographic characteristics based on crime-scene evidence — and portrayed them as having almost superhuman abilities to mind-meld with psychopaths.
But in real life, a growing number of experts are disputing the science behind criminal profiling.
In 1974, the FBI formed its Behavioral Science Unit to investigate serial rape and homicide cases. During the seventies, several FBI agents, most famously John Douglas and Robert Ressler, interviewed 36 serial murderers to develop theories and categories of different types of offenders.
When performing a Crime Scene Analysis (CSA), FBI agents are trained to look at factors including the antecedent (fantasy or plan the murderer had in mind), method and manner, body disposal method, and post-offense behavior.
But over the years, several studies and experts have called the assumptions into question.
In a 2007 article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell questioned the science behind profiling, and came to the conclusion that it may sometimes do more harm than good. According to Gladwell, in the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed 184 crimes to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in just five of those cases — or only 2.7 per cent.
British researchers also called into question the FBI’s grouping of offenders into “organized” and “disorganized” groups. Broadly speaking, the FBI classifies offenders as “organized” when they show evidence of logic and planning, such as stalking their victim, and are educated, adaptable, and mobile.
“Disorganized” offenders, on the other hand, choose victims at random, and the murders are sloppily executed, “blitz” style.
Over the years, the Behavioral Science Unit has modified the FBI’s profiling process, and developed other classification schemes. But a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool tested the FBI assumptions by looking at a sample of 100 serial crimes, and found that crimes did not tend to fall neatly into one camp or the other. In fact, it turns out that they’re almost always a mixture of organized and disorganized traits.
The profiles created by Douglas and others have made some correct predictions — including the fact that Atlanta child killer Wayne Williams was Black and that the West Memphis Three murders were not related to Satanism.
But Gladwell pointed out that in many cases — including the Unabomber Ted Kazynski and BTK killer Dennis Rader — the profiles got key details wrong, and calls profiling an “astrological exercise” comparable to horoscopes.
“Profilers do wonderful jobs telling us about the cases when they were right, and very little time telling us about the times when they were wrong. And we need to sit down and figure out if the bad stuff outweigh the value of the good stuff,” Gladwell told NPR. “And I think it does.”
In his research paper on criminal profiling, Damon Muller at the University of Melbourne pointed out that the widely cited study performed by Ressler in 1988 relied on interviews with 36 serial killers. Muller pointed out that since the majority of the killers interviewed could be classified as psychopaths or sociopaths, “there is also a very real danger of subjects’ lying (e.g., to impress the researcher) and there is often no way to verify the veracity of the data.”
Douglas defended his work on NPR, and explained that the offender categories were more of a “continuum.” He gave the example of O.J. Simpson, whose civil case he was brought in on, as a crime scene that exhibited characteristics of both the organized and disorganized offender — which would fall under the definition of “mixed category.”
Douglas said that the killer brought a knife to the scene — a characteristic of an organized offender. But then, things “began to deteriorate” due to Ron Goldman’s presence, and after he lost control, the scene had “components of disorganized and organized” behavior.
Douglas added that profiling was “not science” and was only as good as the profiler performing it.
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Main photo: Cameron Bitton as Edmund Kemper in “Mindhunter” [Netflix / YouTube (screenshot)]