Criminal Investigative Analysis
Practitioner Perspectives (Part One of Four)
By J. Amber Scherer, M.A., and John P. Jarvis, Ph.D.
Criminal behavior profiling has increased in notoriety over the past three decades. The media have guided the public’s perception of this type of analysis, and fictional television shows, such as Criminal Minds and The Mentalist, and the well-known film Silence of the Lambs have helped spike its popularity. The Behavioral Analysis Team led by Aaron Hotchner on Criminal Minds gives viewers the false impression that each character on the show possesses some unique, specialized—perhaps, bordering on psychic—insight into offenders’ minds. Rather, individuals who practice this specialized analysis have years of law enforcement experience and training to prepare them to examine criminal behavior. Nonetheless, debates persist, especially in academia, about the background, skills, and training needed to practice behavioral analysis in this arena.
The lack of universal agreement regarding the definition of behavioral profiling lies at the heart of many contentions. A history of offender profiling and how it has advanced into a more comprehensive analysis, including additional services to assist law enforcement agencies, can provide insight. The growth of more widespread investigative assistance has led to both the need for and debate concerning appropriate training in this area. Also valuable are observations derived from a recent study that examined the experiences of actual criminal profilers, referred to in this article and in the field as criminal investigative analysts.
This article constitutes part one of a four-part series addressing different aspects of “criminal investigative analysis.” Part two will address the skills, expertise, and training necessary for this type of analysis; part three will explore measures of success and effectiveness; and part four will examine different applications for the courts.
BACKGROUND OF PROFILING
Since the 1970s the FBI has helped state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate violent crimes.1 Experts within the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) initiated the practice of profiling, which involves providing a requesting department with the behavioral and personality traits of a likely offender.2 It began as an analytical method to identify offender characteristics based upon a thorough examination of the crime dynamics and the crime scene and continued to develop over the years as a practical investigative tool to aid officers in advancing their casework and sometimes narrowing down a suspect pool.3
Like many analytical approaches offender profiling was a byproduct of the training programs offered within the BSU.4 In their classes, instructors encouraged students to discuss both solved and unsolved cases. Then, the officers noted crimes involving similar offenders. In subsequent courses students presented similar unsolved cases, and instructors responded with verbal profiles. Students then used this information when returning to their home agencies, later reporting that the profiles assisted them in their cases by saving them time and focusing their efforts. In some instances officers solved the case by using only the profile. As the news of the valuable assistance grew, so did the number of requests for offender profiles. However, at that time the instructors were primarily responsible for training, so they had limited time to conduct formal case analyses.
Dr. Jarvis serves in the FBI’s Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit and chairs the Futures Working Group.
Since the informal initiation of the analysis process, the FBI has assisted (e.g., through crime analysis, case linkage analysis, statement analysis, and psycholinguistic techniques) with cases involving multiple types of crime, including hostage taking, rape, arson, and serial sexual homicide.5 In general, assistance requested in these investigations focused on developing characteristics and traits of offenders. These wider applications of behavioral analysis illustrate the evolution and utility of this analytical approach in examining a broader spectrum of criminal behaviors.
ADVANCEMENT OF CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE ANALYSIS
Again, when the various types of analytic services that were available to law enforcement agencies increased, so did the need for assistance. Therefore, to better reflect the roles of those within the FBI providing the assistance, profiling was renamed criminal investigative analysis. Creating an unknown offender profile has become and continues to be just one of the many services within this analytical framework provided to law enforcement to assist with the investigation of violent crimes.6 As such, criminal investigative analysis has become an umbrella term encapsulating a variety of services, including myriad behavioral advice provided by the FBI to law enforcement agencies.7
While criminal investigative analysis, now practiced around the world, is most well-known for the production of offender profiles, the practice has expanded into a more comprehensive investigative aid providing a variety of services to law enforcement agencies.8
- Indirect personality assessments
- Equivocal death analyses
- Investigative suggestions
- Interview strategies
- Linkage analyses
- Media strategies
- Threat assessments
- Search warrant affidavit assistance
- Trial strategies
- Expert testimony
- Geographic profiling
- Critical incident analyses
To characterize criminal investigative analysis as only offender profiling is both oversimplified and antiquated. This perspective is highlighted by the findings from recent interviews with criminal investigative analysts who noted that the consultative services go far beyond providing an offender profile and may, in fact, be more useful during an investigation. According to one interviewee:
The most important thing I used to do was [assist with] interview or investigative strategy. In other words, if I do a profile saying you are looking for a white guy in his 30s, the proper response from the investigator was, ‘That’s kind of cool, but how do I catch the guy?’ And, that’s really the issue, so it’s investigative strategy, or interview strategy if you’ve got a suspect or several suspects or a difficult witness. It’s interview or interrogation strategy and investigative techniques that are the nuts and bolts that really move things forward.
The primary goal of criminal investigative analysis is to examine all of the behavioral information and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than become involved in the actual investigative process. Occasionally a criminal investigative analyst or team will go out to the field and assist in the process or testify, but the investigation is left for the law enforcement agency that requested the assistance. The FBI does not come in and take over the case; rather, assistance is provided to an agency in its investigation. One interviewed subject shared a reference to a long-running television show, which underscores this point.
The Lone Ranger show, one of my favorite shows, the Lone Ranger was this guy who came into town. He helped out the local sheriff or marshall, helped him solve the case and arrested the bad guy. And, at the end the sheriff would be standing there talking to people, saying, ‘Yes, we got the guy who committed these murders, he’s in jail.’ There is a great sheriff, and everyone was asking, ‘How’d you do it?’ And where was the Lone Ranger in town? He was riding out of town. He gave all the glory to the sheriff, and he just rode off into the sunset. That was the idea, that we would come in and help these people. We didn’t claim the credit and the glory.
If a homicide or other violent crime occurs, and your agency has exhausted all investigative leads, you may think it wise to seek behavioral analysis assistance. But, do you know what kind of help would prove most beneficial?
Often, the initial thought is to request a behavioral profile of the unknown offender. But, perhaps, a service other than a list of traits and characteristics of your likely offender would be most valuable. What may help the investigation more is a list of strategies to help narrow down your suspect pool, followed by possible search warrant affidavit assistance. Then, once you have a likely suspect, following up with the criminal investigative analyst for interview strategies would be most helpful. Later, if the case goes to court, a range of behavioral investigative strategies (e.g., jury selection advice, prosecutorial trial strategies, case presentation, or expert testimony) may assist with a successful prosecution.
Exploring an adjudicated case can illustrate how the range of criminal investigative analysis services can offer the most benefit during an investigation.9 However, this example only shows how criminal investigative analysis services were provided in one particular case. It does not illustrate the required protocol for services to be rendered in every case because this varies, nor does it endorse a required methodology.
In the late 1980s a male offender was convicted of committing two homicides and suspected in three others. The first victim was hitchhiking at the time of the crime and, thus, was at high risk. Her body was found on the side of the road. A few months later, the second victim, also hitchhiking at the time of the crime, was found dumped on the side of the road. The investigating agency noticed the similarities between the two cases and sought assistance from personnel trained in criminal investigative analysis. Two FBI special agents assisted. First, they provided a general crime analysis, which consisted of, for instance, identification of shared characteristics of the crimes, evaluation of case linkages, assessment of victimology, and analysis of crime signature aspects. Then, from that analysis, the agency requested an unknown offender profile to identify the characteristics of the individual that its investigators should look for. Therefore, the analysts provided both traits and characteristics of the type of person who would have committed these two homicides.
A threat assessment suggested that the offender would kill again. From this information investigative techniques were developed to help make the subject evident to the police. In this case it was thought that the community should be warned of this individual through a media release, so the analysts also provided media strategies.
As the police pursued their investigation, another victim was discovered. Unfortunately, due to decomposition of the body, there was not sufficient evidence to assist in the investigation. Then, a month after finding the third body, another victim disappeared and never was recovered. Because of the developments in the case, officers continued providing information to the FBI special agents to receive further investigative suggestions. A decoy operation using a female officer was set in place. Although dangerous for that female officer, the necessary information was gathered for identification of the suspect, as well as evidence that could help convict the offender of the first two murders.
At that time research was gathered to support an affidavit for a search warrant to gain access to the suspect’s car. The specifics of the complex case suggested that law enforcement officers sought possible fibers from inside of the vehicle.
At the same time, another victim had disappeared, but was disposed of in water (instead of dumped on the side of the road). This suggested that the offender watched the media accounts and changed his methods of operation (MO). Thus, the criminal investigative analysts modified their investigative suggestions.
Fortunately, these efforts were successful. With that said, once the suspect was taken into custody, the investigators requested additional behavioral assistance with interview and interrogation techniques. This involved an indirect personality assessment (IPA) of the suspect. However, in this case it was difficult to get enough background about the suspect’s personality.
When the case goes to trial, the IPA also could be used in formulating a prosecutorial strategy. In this case the prosecutor had the same physical features as the victims, which were used to re-create scenes for the jury during case presentation. Trial strategies also are used during jury selection and opening and closing remarks. Additionally, expert testimony may be requested for service as an educated witness who can help identify, for instance, MO, signature, staging, or sexual homicide, if present.
Overall, this excellent real-life case example shows how numerous criminal investigative analysis services can be requested and used in one case consultation to assist a department with its investigation. However, this is an exceptional circumstance. Rarely do law enforcement agencies request this level of specialized behavioral assistance.
Definition of Problem
Although criminal investigative analysis has become a more comprehensive investigative tool, no collective or agreed-upon definition describing this process exists, either in law enforcement or academic literature. This exacerbates subsequent debates regarding the methods employed and the training required to deliver these services. For example, one question that arises is whether this process should be empirical or experience based. The expertise of an individual who provides criminal investigative analysis is debated regularly in literature, including whether investigative experience is necessary.10 In addition, discrepancies were found in the literature pertaining to required skills and training, the profiling process, and criticisms of its application.11 Common questions are debated throughout the academic literature and highlight longstanding controversies within the community of practice.
- If I want to practice criminal investigative analysis, do I need formal training?
- What makes someone who practices this analysis an expert?
- Is investigative experience really necessary?
- Is logic and objective reasoning more important than investigative experience?
- Are the methods used standard and reliable?
- What makes criminal investigative analysis effective?
- Is profiling actually successful?
These illustrate the obstacles this work must overcome to become more accepted by the academic and law enforcement communities.12 With that said, these debates have been examined in an ad hoc manner with little systematic assessment. To overcome this shortfall, the remainder of this article reports the results of a recent study (referred to earlier) designed to examine these issues by interviewing practitioners of this analytical technique.
Various dynamics of profiling have undergone analysis in the past. Yet, there has been little attempt to tap into the wealth of knowledge, experience, and skills of those who engage in such work. As such, the literature has noted that fully understanding the process requires examining the knowledge of those who engage in the analysis and making it explicit.13 This research responded to this call by seeking to gain insight into the background, training, skills, and expertise crucial for consistently applying the profiling techniques within criminal investigative analysis from individuals who likely have extensive knowledge in the practice. The primary goal was to examine common perspectives and practices among individuals experienced and informed about criminal investigative analysis services and processes.14
The subjects consisted of individuals who had practiced criminal investigative analysis while working with the FBI, persons trained by the FBI to perform these services, or individuals with law enforcement experience in providing criminal investigative analysis services who also received FBI instruction. All participants had the ability to explicitly provide important data regarding practices of criminal investigative analysis. Initial participants were identified using purposive and convenience sampling from knowledge and access of working in the BSU. Subsequent participants were recruited using snowball sampling, yielding a sample size of 40.
After reviewing and signing a voluntary consent form, every participant completed a semistructured 46-question interview. All of the interviews were audio recorded per consent of the interviewee to obtain full documentation of responses. All individual responses remain confidential because all results are aggregated and made anonymous herein.
Of the 40 individuals (male = 87.5 percent) interviewed for this study, 6 (15 percent) were from an international law enforcement agency. The mean number of years of law enforcement experience reported was 32.9, ranging from 15.5 to 51. Regarding prior experience, 97.5 percent had general investigative experience, and 75 percent had both general investigative experience and specific experience in violent crime investigation. Of the individuals interviewed, 47.5 percent of them currently practice criminal investigative analysis full time, and 22.5 percent do so part time.
Definition of Criminal Investigative Analysis
An important finding from this research was that no singular definition of criminal investigative analysis exists.
- 27.5 percent of the respondents described it as a list of services that can be provided to an agency.
- 25 percent described it as—similar to the original definition of offender profiling—deriving characteristics of an offender from the characteristics of the crime scene.
- 22.5 percent described it as a process used for analyzing information.
- 15 percent described it as both a list of services that can be provided and a process to be used.
- 10 percent described it as something else.
The notion that criminal investigative analysis may include multiple services provided to a requesting law enforcement agency is illustrated by the viewpoint offered by one of the respondents.
It encompasses a variety of investigative techniques that are aimed at narrowing the focus of an investigation. I refer to it as ‘behavioral forensics,’ so we might, sometimes we are working during the investigative stage of assisting law enforcement, helping investigators to have a better understanding of an unknown offender’s behaviors. We might do a crime scene analysis to sequence events, to bring a better and a clearer, more accurate understanding of how a crime was committed and identify the behaviors that the offender engaged in and the behaviors that the victim engaged in, to put those together so, so that they understand what happened. We might also do a crime scene reconstruction. But, also, it entails working during the prosecution of a crime to provide, um, trial strategy, cross-examination strategy, trial prep, expert testimony. Also worked doing threat assessment. Also, in the, in the last portion of my work as a profiler, I worked closely with geographic profilers to combine both the behavior and better understanding of the locations involved. That was very, very successful.
Other varying perspectives on the definition of criminal investigative analysis exist. For instance, one respondent explained the prototypical definition of profiling: “Criminal investigative analysis is a process of analyzing the facts of a case and interpreting the interaction between the victim and the offender as exhibited at the crime scene.” Another respondent described criminal investigative analysis as both providing multiple services, as well as a specific process to follow: “It’s an umbrella of services, but it all focuses back to that process of reviewing that criminal act and then, you know, suggesting something from that.”
As is evident, the perspectives surrounding the definition of criminal investigative analysis vary widely. This lack of definition of its core concepts likely is the source of many other disagreements (e.g., the methodology used and how to measure success), as well as misunderstandings concerning the training and skills needed to deliver these analytical services. Without understanding the core concepts measured and implemented, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine consistent and reliable results to establish success.
This article has described the dynamics of the overall research study and highlighted the inherent misunderstanding surrounding the definition of criminal investigative analysis. Additional findings relative to further debates surrounding the training and skills required, success and usefulness, and utility in court will be addressed in the next three issues of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
The authors wish to thank Dr. Gabrielle Salfati of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, New York, for substantial assistance in formulating the research questions, constructing the protocols employed, and providing other general guidance in earlier stages of this research effort.
Investigators who believe that their case can benefit from criminal investigative analysis services and would like to request such services should contact their local FBI field office. The field office representative will put investigators in contact with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) coordinator, who will assess the case and contact the NCAVC office in Quantico, VA.
“Although criminal investigative analysis has become a more comprehensive investigative tool, no collective or agreed-upon definition describing this process exists, either in law enforcement or academic literature.”