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Profiles in Confusion

From the November 4, 2002 issue: It might be entertaining, but profiling doesn't solve crimes.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By ELI LEHRER
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A MYSTERIOUS PHONE CALL, a fingerprint, a composite sketch, and spent ammunition from an unsolved Alabama killing finally led the police to sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. In the end, all the scientific-sounding speculation offered by the bevy of professional profilers who had been pronouncing in the media for weeks had nothing to do with the alleged snipers' capture.

The profilers' most confident assertions turned out to be wrong: Nearly every profiler who appeared on TV guessed that a white male was doing the shooting, since nearly all famous serial killers have been men of European descent. But both Muhammad and Malvo are black. Candace DeLong, a California-based FBI veteran and frequent cable TV guest, swore that the sniper was "less than 25 years old" and worked alone. But Muhammad is 41 and had a partner.

Often the television sages portentously stated the obvious. Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt told Time magazine that the sniper was "toying with the police" and "using the media for information." Collectively, profilers covered all the bases. Northeastern University professor Jack Levin told the Toronto Globe and Mail that the killer was emotionless, while security consultant Robert Ressler insisted that he shot people for thrills. "My predictions were not that close," confessed Levin when the New York Times asked him for a self-assessment. With so many guesses flying around, however, a few turned out to be right. Former New York City homicide detective Bo Dietl guessed that "two skinny kids" were doing the shooting and claimed victory when the police apprehended two men. (Muhammad, of course, is hardly a kid.)

The media's respect for a dubious branch of psychological science seems mostly to reflect the fascination with "profiling" of the FBI. After psychologist James Brussel provided a profile that helped the Bureau catch a serial bomber in the late 1950s, longtime Bureau head J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with reading criminals' minds. (Hoover also had great enthusiasm for the iffy science of lie detectors.) The FBI has had a full-scale profiling unit since the early 1970s, despite the fact that few peer-reviewed studies have found any merit in profiling, and most other police agencies have ignored the technique. Outside of the federal government, fewer than 50 people work full-time as profilers.

Indeed, for all the media hype, it's hard to find a single police chief who calls psychological profiling helpful. "I suppose it's useful in a very, very limited sense," says former New York City police commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, who seems to have held every important job in policing. "You might develop a few leads." But profilers, Murphy argues, are only one step more respectable than the psychics and tarot card readers police have been known to call on when truly desperate for leads.

Famed stage magician and pseudo-science debunker James Randi argues psychological profiling is little better than a stage act, a variant of the "cold reading" that performers like John Edward use to "commune with the dead" and "read minds" in front of an audience. Cold reading involves making a large number of vague guesses and asking spectators to provide information. Many profilers work much the same way: They make very broad guesses and then refine them as hard evidence comes in.

Many psychological profiles I've seen read a lot like Edward's stage patter. They are filled with catchall weasel phrases like "I would believe the suspect to be . . ." When attempting to profile the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber back in 1996, profilers had it every which way. An AP story reported that the experts had concluded the bomber "may not have worked alone" or, alternatively, "may have been a loner." Other profiles simply state what is in plain view for all to see. Immediately after Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski released a turgid academic-style manifesto, FBI profilers discovered that he was "familiar with university life." When he made attacks near Chicago, the FBI deduced that he knew the area. By the time his family turned him in, the FBI's crack profilers had developed a rather accurate profile of the Unabomber--and anybody with a pulse could have done the same.

Of course there are times when theories about offenders' psychological makeup can help police at the margins. Seasoned detectives and patrol officers can follow lucky hunches, make good guesses, and sometimes even develop psychological clues that a narrower reliance on physical evidence and eyewitness testimony would have missed. But conjecture rarely if ever provides enough information to catch a suspect. Known characteristics like dress, manner, and behavior tell police officers far more.