Criminal Profilers: Who Are They And What Do They Do?

So the case you are handling has gone cold. The family calls you every week and is making you nuts. Your boss expects you to focus on the newer cases on the table. You really don't see that there is much more that can be done on this case. You know you are a good homicide investigator and you think you have done a good job. Why should you call for outside help? Why should you call a profiler for help? Why should you let the family send you a profiler they found on the Internet? Isn't it YOUR case? Are they questioning your abilities? WHO is this profiler person anyway? Let's take a look at this newcomer to the field of homicide investigation and determine if a profiler can be of any use to a homicide investigator and cold case work.

We can start with the fact that the case IS cold. This pretty much means the chances of it getting solved are pretty lousy. This is not necessarily a reflection of the investigator's work. It may be that the case is darn difficult to solve, there IS no clear suspect, the evidence is limited, or manpower has been a problem in running down hundreds of questionable leads. Whatever the reasons, the case simply is going to be shelved and it is going to remain shelved barring a lucky break. The case IS effectively closed but since the family is told it is active and open, they are going to expect something to be done about it. You really have no plans to spend time with this case. You have too many other more recent cases to work on. You would LIKE to just close it but there IS that nagging thought that the family has not gotten justice and a killer is still on the streets. At this point, since the case is going to just sit there bugging you, why NOT bring a profiler in? David Rivers, retired director of the Cold Case Unit of the Metro-Dade Police department, commented at the 1999 Advanced Seminar on the Scientific Investigation of Death, "At this point, you might as well try anything!" Fears of letting "confidential" information out and tipping off the killer or screwing up the prosecution are valid in any investigation, but when a case becomes cold, the risk of these factors preventing a conviction are extremely slight compared to the simple fact NOT releasing information and taking chances will result in never having a suspect to prosecute. More cold cases will be solved by going public and allowing others to take a crack at working the case than will leaving the boxes in a file cabinet awaiting a drunk bar confession.

So, now you are saying, okay, what the heck. You are right. This baby is just sitting here causing me grief. What about this profiler? Who IS this person? What skills do they have that I don't and what are they going to tell me that I don't already know? How will a profiler benefit me? First of all, criminal profiling is a much-misunderstood field. Some think that profilers are almost like psychics and can practically pull a suspect out of a hat. Others think profiling is pure poppycock. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Profiling is a method of crime scene analysis that depends on experience, studies, logic, and gut feeling. Profilers can come from many backgrounds - police, FBI, investigative, psychology, forensics, and criminal justice or a mix of any of those. As a tool, the ingredients of a profile is a view of the suspect that should be explainable to the investigative team and from there, future strategy can be mapped out. The varied experience and background of profilers working in the field today offer investigators fresh ideas and possibilities that can help bring about case closure. Each one of us, profilers and police investigators alike, are just one person looking subjectively at the crime from our set of experiences. Subjectively, in that our "objectivity" still comes from our own databank of knowledge and practice. When we reach a dead end on a case, the next person, looking from a different set of experiences, may just be the key to some aspect of the case that has gone previously unexplored.

So what happens when you let a profiler work on the case? First of all, the family is extremely pleased. You MUST be a great investigator because you won't allow the case to just sit there. YOU are bringing in the profiler. YOU are going to work with the profiler and see what new investigative avenues can be discovered. After the profiler looks at the case and writes a report or has a meeting with you to discuss the possibilities, the case is still yours to investigate and close. IF you can't close the case - perhaps, there is just nothing really new to follow or the profiler didn't come up with anything to use in this case - the family will be much easier to deal with. After all, the profiler couldn't help with this case either. Maybe the case is just impossible to solve. You will find the family more willing to accept lack of progress when you have made this extra effort to solve the case. On the other hand, if you DO close the case after having the profiler analyze it, the family will still be viewing your handling of the case, your investigating of the case, and your arresting the suspect, to be instrumental in bringing them justice. The community will view you and your department as concerned about public safety and successful in getting criminals off the street.

So, adding a profiler at some point to the investigative team can be a win-win situation for homicide investigators. With the increase of homicide cases in this country and with the lack of manpower and funding for police departments getting worse everyday, the smart investigator will use all the help he can get when the case goes cold. Justice, public safety, and successful case management depend on using all the tools available to us in society today.

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