Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Criminal profiling

Criminal Profiling has gotten a bad name lately, perhaps due to fears of misuse by more aggressive law enforcement agencies, especially concerning "racial profiling". I am not a criminal investigator, just a blogger with interests in civil liberties and in safe streets. I believe criminal profiling has the potential to enhance both civil liberty and public safety if used correctly, and to damage both if misused. The discussion applies to both regular law enforcement and the war on terror.

Criminal profiling was originally the practice of determining, through statistical, psychological, and forensic means, the likely description of an unknown suspect. If certain criminal behavior is typically exhibited by persons of a certain age, sex, psychological imbalance, physical ability or characteristic, then a profile can be of use. The evidence at a crime scene, or especially at several similar crime scenes, may for instance lead to a person of a certain height (by footprint size and spacing), gender (by the type of crime committed), hair color (by those found), right- or left-handedness, or physical strength. The incident may fit a pattern from DSM IV, organized crime, or terrorism. All of these factors go into the profile. Anyone related to the crime can be examined against the profile to see how close the match is.

The trouble comes in several areas.

  1. A profile gets too broad, fitting such a large segment of society as to be ineffective
  2. A profile is too narrow, clearing a guilty party
  3. A profile is used to match people who have no connection to a crime other than fitting the profile, rather than against only those who are already selected by other factors
  4. A profile is used to look for people of a particular type, because they might commit an unknown crime
  5. The profile is treated as evidence, rather than as an investigative aid
Depending on the situation, using ethnicity in a profile may fit into one or all of those categories.
If a profile is merely "Black male driving SUV" or "Arab male wearing size 9 shoe", then the profile doesn't exclude enough. A certain piece of evidence at the scene may not actually apply to the crime, and if included in the profile could incorrectly exclude a guilty party. Obviously, race could be used to select people who have no other similarity to the guilty party, but so could any other factor, and people could be sought based on their race or on some other factor.

Still, some equate profiling with the problem areas, and declare it immoral to profile by race. It isn't including race in the profile that is the problem; rather, it's the way the profile is formed and used. Any use of a profile in one of those categories is invalid investigative technique, regardless of what the profile contains.

As DNA technology improves, it should be possible to extract important genetic traits from any genetic material associated with a crime. A few milligrams of skin or blood could reveal the sex, hair color, eye color, and yes, the ethnicity of either a victim or a perpetrator. It seems ridiculous to suppress information about an at-large suspect or missing person merely because that information could be misused in some other circumstance. It would be far better to insist that information is always used properly.

No matter how advanced we become in dealing with DNA, image processing, or other technical evidence, the problem remains keeping supposition from being treated as fact, and keeping prejudice from informing supposition.

But as Robert Levy concludes in a 2002 NRO article,
It may be entirely logical to condemn criminal profiling of African Americans while advocating terrorist profiling of Middle Easterners. In the terrorist context, the damage that could be prevented is measured in thousands of lives, the profiles are probably more effective for fingering guilty parties, and it is much less likely that abusive practices will be driven by institutionalized racism.

Levy appears to have equated profiling with its improper uses. Whether abusive practices are driven by racism or not, they should not be accepted, if only because they do not further public safety. Taking the wrong suspect before a jury or tribunal is a waste of time and resources at best, and worse, may even result in punishing the innocent. Likewise, harassing people simply because they look like others who have committed crimes in the past is probably a waste of an officer's time and engenders disrespect for the system.

If law enforcement officials are investigating a specific crime that has been (or is about to be) committed, then using religion or ethnicity as part of a profile is only prudent. It should not be the only thing in the profile, and the technique must not be allowed to expand to the dragging of a net in hopes of finding something amiss. The proper use of a profile can protect the public while narrowing the search to only those likely to be involved; the improper use of a profile is as ineffective as it is invasive.

Sphere: Related Content


Criminal Profiler Pat Brown said...

Dear Loren,

I have to commend you for your very fine analysis of profiling! You may be a layperson but a very astute layperson concerning the subject of criminal profiling.

However, I cannot fault others for having a misunderstanding of what criminal profiling should be as they no doubt are swayed by the misinformation and misuse of profiling that has been egregious and embarrassing. Much of the problem has been exacerbated by criminal profilers themselves.

Yes, criminal profilng should be an investigative tool supported by solid evidence and no one should be made a suspect based solely on a profile nor excluded solely on a profile. The information gleaned from analyzing crime should allow us to put more or less focus on specific persons of interest, thereby using our time and resources as wisely as possible. Should new evidence come in, then the profile should be updated.

Thanks for your fine explanation of profiling, Loren. I appreciate the added clarity on the subject.

Criminal Profiler Pat Brown


Loren Heal said...

Thanks, Pat.

Blog stats

Add to Technorati Favorites