Value Versus Ethical Concerns: Psychological Profiling

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The act of using crime scene clues to envisage characteristics and personality traits of the offender has been applied to criminal cases as early as the 1880s. In 1908, the FBI officially formed the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) to focus on using the tool of profiling to stop repeat violent offenders. Since then, profiling has become more refined and well known throughout the law enforcement community and the public. As with many new concepts, criminal profiling has had its share of controversy and is often accused of being similar to ‘using a psychic to solve cases’. The reason for this is the lack of knowledge regarding the objectives of profiling, which hinders the ability to articulate an informed analysis of the method. When in fact profiling is as effective as the team of professionals involved in the process and the information available for the profile.

“Because there are so many labels and definitions, the field of profiling has suffered a lack of credibility in the legal, and often the public, arenas. Additionally, the lack of uniformity has led to a significant number of ethical issues with the entire concept of profiling.” (Encyclopedia, 2019) The thought of a breach of ethics worries consumers that the product is faulty and is therefore unwilling to accept it. Situations like abuse of power, racial profiling, incomplete or distorted information, and personal bias or agenda can not only harm the case but cause harm to the public and targeted citizens, as well. Nonetheless, psychological profiling has value in the areas of society, police, courts, and corrections in different ways.


“Psychological profiling, also known as behavioral, criminal personality, and criminal profiling, is a method used by criminal investigators to develop profiles for murders, rapists, and other violent criminals who haven't been apprehended.” (Career Profiles, 2019) The FBI defines criminal profiling as, “a tool law enforcement may use to combine the results of studies in other disciplines with more traditional techniques, in an effort to combat violent crime.” (FBI, USDOJ, 2010, p. 10) Although there is room for ethical issues to arise, psychological profiling has value due to the fact that this method has been used to identify, apprehend, and convict many seral killers and other criminal types.

Profiling is mostly used in seral cases where crime scenes and victims are available for reconstruction and analysis. Without multiple offenses a profiler can still take a crime scene profile, victim profile, and possibly geographical profile to compile an offender profile that can help point investigators in the right direction. It is a tool and tools have value. As with any profession, and really life, moral is considered vital to success, which ripples down to the people in our lives.


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In regards to serial murders/sexual homicides society benefits from criminal profiles by gaining access to ‘insider’ information regarding predictions about the offender, victims, and possibly their next move. Criminal and victim profiling also helps to identify offender victim selection patterns. Officials can then warn the public accordingly. This helps to narrow the suspect pool of possible offenders which helps save time, money, and at times lives. Officials can also use the profile to possibly warn the public of who to be cautious of and what to report. Ethical concerns arise if information is misleading, wrong, or incomplete. This type of information can cause the public to panic, over react, or even under-react. The general public does not understand that profiles do not point to a specific person but give an out of the box view of what to look for.

For instance, if the geographical profile and victim profile are given with incomplete information the profiler may produce information that causes harm to the public. The police could set up road blocks and warn the wrong community, given incomplete or misleading information. This information could come from an investigator trying to make a name for themselves or from a newbie who is just uneducated in what is going on. Collaborating with other professionals in the field can help cut down on mistakes. Getting soil tested rather than guessing where it came from or having a trained psychologist look at the behavior verses googling traits can all be done with the right network of professionals. As professionals we should always be checking our work to ensure positive results. It is not enough to just assume that the information you have been given is true. Proof is needed to back up all statements prior to releasing information or forming an action plan.


The seen value that police officials have gained from profiling is a learned ability to help narrow the suspect pool, in order to focus the investigation. This can benefit a police investigation by identifying if the victim knew their attacker, if the attacker was larger or smaller than the victim, the attacker’s race, gender, and smell. If the attacker smelled like cigarettes then all non-smokers would be off the suspect list, since everyone is considered a suspect, from the onset of an investigation, investigators need ways to start eliminating people from being possible offenders.

With the good there is some bad. Profiling in policing has a bad reputation in regards to racial profiling. In policing racial profiling is a huge ethical concern and has gained much publicity over the years. Statistics suggest that minorities are targeted by police. Unless we talk directly to the officer we do not know if his intentions are ill or just misplaced. When an investigator who is distracted, tired, overworked, and hungry mixes up the description of the offender and or victim the results could be deadly. In a racially charged neighborhood accusing a black male of a crime against a white child could cause chaos when it comes out that a white man committed the criminal acts against a young black child.

With racial tensions in America we cannot afford for mistakes like this to occur. When a profile targets innocent person(s), it can ruin reputations and put people in danger. More community policing is the best approach to overcome this type of concern. We need our police officers and our neighbors to all know each other and understand each other’s positions. Arlington police department in TX is proof that community policing works, along with a focus on being, “proactive and creative not only in addressing, but in preventing, problems.” (Johnson, 2018) We also need our officers to come to work alert and ready to pursue justice!


Profiling has value in the courts because an expert’s testimony can be used to educate the jury. The ABP ethical code of conduct, “requires limiting expert witness testimony to the facts of the case, and mandates against the use of conjecture and the offering of opinions regarding guilt or innocence of a suspect in a particular crime.” Experts are not allowed to direct their findings at the defendant on trial, but is only allowed to make general statements of their analysis.

Case Example

In 1987 Peggy Hettrick’s body was found and no suspects were arrested until years later when a profiler got involved. Years after the murder a phycologist was asked to look at the evidence and create a profile. A 15-year-old boy who had been questioned at the time of the murder was arrested. The only physical evidence claimed by the prosecution was drawings and writings by the boy. The Dr. later testified about how the drawings showed that the boy was a killer and wanted to kill so he must have killed 37-year-old Peggy. The young man was later exonerated over DNA evidence, but after he spent years in prison. His youth, reputation, and future were all stolen by an overzealous doctor, judge, community, and police force looking to close the case.When profiles are given and point to a particular suspect substantial physical evidence needs to be recovered in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect being tried is the actual offender. Justice is not found and cannot prevail until the correct offender is tired and convicted. The disadvantage to this profile was that the real killer was never found. The profiler focused on the drawings when the team needed to focus on more real evidence. Training in this area of expertise and bias training could prove to be useful in overcoming the limitations profiles can sometimes have.


Profiling in corrections helps in screening incoming offenders for risk assessment, needs, and referrals. Having an accurate behavioral profile of the offender can help the offender get the right services and placement. This could also come into play during parole hearings. An ethical concern that comes up in this area is abuse of power. Correctional officers who are not concerned with treating all people with dignity and equality can use their power to withhold services or goods to exploit the inmate’s vulnerability, for the officer’s own personal gain. Profiling in corrections can be a disadvantage to and offender who has victim written on their forehead. Profiles and profile information, in regards to the correctional system, should be considered private and not public for all of the employees and inmates to know. Keeping this information confidential could help in keeping down victimization within our correctional facilities.


As you can see psychological profiling has value to the areas of society, police, courts, and corrections in different ways. As it is with most things in life no-thing is ‘perfect’. Profiling as the same as most professions can have ethical issues that arise and make it difficult to gain credibility. I say profiling is as effective as the professionals involved in the method and information available for the profile.

To increase criminal profiling effectiveness, officials need to continue adding to their training, experience, and network of skilled professionals; as was well as continue to compile records on known criminal offenders, crimes committed, and the profiles. To overcome ethical issues solutions, need to be formulated and taught within the profession. With these components criminal profiling will expand its credibility. We need to remember that profiling is in fact a tool that can be utilized to narrow the suspect pool and not a solution for solving every criminal act.

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