Profiling A Serial Killer
Have you ever watched a show like Criminal Minds and found yourself wondering what they meant when they referred to a serial killer as organized or disorganized? Have you ever wondered how the profile of the murderers are formed?
Weird as it may sound, serial killers are my passion. Older followers of my articles may know, but newer ones may not, I’m a Forensic Psychology major in my senior year of undergrad. I plan to follow through and earn a PhD, so that I have a broader range of career options available to me. My goal is to either work researching the typology and dichotomy associated with serial murderers or to work with law enforcement in homicide. I find every single thing about this topic exciting, complex, and fascinating.
With that said, I’d like to share some pretty interesting information about criminal profiling with you all.
While researching for this article, I came across an article titled The Organized/Disorganized Typology of Serial Murder: Myth or Model? The author, David Canter, discussed factors used to categorize an individual as organized vs. disorganized, provided research defining why these categories aren’t always accurate, and the implications of criminal profiling being admissible in courts of law. Also explored is the dichotomy associated with offender profiles by using data from a study that included 100 murders committed by 100 serial killers within the United States. The hope was that by using the data gathered during this study along with information gained from future studies, that we can further advance the science of investigative psychology and that we can form more accurate methods of criminal profiling that go beyond simple typology.
According to the author, “The organized/disorganized dichotomy is one of the most widely cited classifications of violent, serial offenders.” An organized offender is more likely to lean an orderly life, have average or high intelligence, have stable employment, and maintain healthy social relationships. The disorganized offender is more prone to have below-average intelligence, lack healthy social skills, and this offender’s life is more likely to be chaotic or in a constant sense of disorder. The organized offender would be more likely to bring a weapon with them to the scene, restrain their victim, to put effort into the planning of the crime, and to clean up the crime scene or dispose of the murder weapon; this offender is also more likely to kill after experiencing some form of stressful event or trauma. The disorganized offender is quite the opposite, tending to leave behind forensic evidence such as fingerprints, blood, and semen; this offender is also more likely to leave the murder weapon at the scene, hunt close to their home, and to act as an opportunistic killer.
Canter goes on to explore the birth of this dichotomy at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Training Academy at Quantico. Through the work done by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a distinction has been made between crimes of lust, sadistic murder, sexual homicides, and arson; these crimes are defined and differentiated between in the Crime Classification Manual. The Crime Classification Manual cites a third category known as a mixed offender. The term mixed offender is used for offenders who aren’t able to be labeled as disorganized or organized. According to David Canter, the term is used when “the attack may involve more than one offender, there were unexpected events the offender was unprepared for, the victim resisted, or the offender escalated into a different pattern during the course of the offense.”
Another aspect to consider is the media’s impact on criminal profiling known as The Hollywood Effect. This effect occurs when criminal profiling is glorified by the media and presented as the most used method by law enforcement around the world. The media portrays criminal profiling to be an absolute science with little to no margin of error. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it provides society with a poor understanding of the dichotomy that is profiling. The dichotomy was developed as a process in identifying the gross psychological characteristics associated with a person based on an analysis of the crimes they committed and providing a vague description of the kind of person who may utilize those specific behavioral traits.
The study referenced in the article by David Canter tested the dichotomy via the psychometric multidimensional scaling of the co-occurrence of 39 aspects of serial killings derived from 100 murders committed by 100 serial killers in the United States. This study shows that a classification of disorganized is far less common than a classification of organized and that there were no distinct reflections of the dichotomy present in the results of the study. The information used for this study was known as the Missen Corpus of Serial Killer Data, and it consisted of newspaper articles, magazine articles, case files, court transcripts, journals, and police reports. The cases used were typically high profile, and this led to their being multiple investigations that helped to support the credibility of the information. Canter stated that through this study, “It has been shown that the division of serial murders into one of two types, either organized or disorganized, underlies many discussions of the profiling of such offenders, yet there has been no empirical examination of the reliability or validity of such a typology.” The article then impressed upon me the importance of using caution when profiling an offender, and to avoid the use of profiling during live inquiries of offenders. According to the author, “When used in the earliest stages of an investigation, profiling can influence investigative policy and outcomes, thus also affecting time and financial resources.”
The last topic that we will discuss is the use of profiling inside a court of law. There are two different ways that the organized/disorganized typology could be used in courts; the first would be offering the court a profile in an effort to prove that an offender matches or doesn’t match the profile, and the second would be to provide evidence of similarities between crimes in an effort to determine if they were committed by the same person. Typically, this form of evidence is not allowed in court, but occasionally an expert opinion will be allowed in order to prove whether an offender possesses personality traits that are related to the crime they have been accused of. The U.S. psychological contributions to courts of law, along with admissibility of scientific and psychological evidence have been specified as (a) Is it falsifiable, testable, and tested? (b) Is it (can it be) subjected to peer review? (c) Is there an existence of maintenance of standard and controls? (d) Does it have the support of a body of the scientific community and is it generally accepted? And (e) Does it have a known potential error rate?
There is still a lot of room for improvements and advancements to be made in investigative psychology, and I’m excited to see them take place. Criminal profiling can be confusing and it can be difficult to build an accurate profile that is free of bias or unnecessary stereotypes. The most important thing to remember is that real life and real people are not the same as the offenders you see on your favorite television shows. There are standards that have to be upheld when building a profile, ethical concerns to address, and an obligation to not be deceptive. Profiling is not a guessing game, and this is why only highly skilled individuals are tasked with building these glimpses into the mind of a killer.