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Criminal Profiling in Law Enforcement

Updated on April 12, 2011

5’4, 130lbs, short red hair, hazel eyes and freckles; do I fit the profile of a drug trafficker? I would answer no, but who exactly does fit the profile? Is it the tall African American man with the smooth voice sitting behind me in the library? Is it the scruffy-looking guy with shaggy brown hair and a crooked smile who hands me my coffee at Sandella’s? Or could it be the round smiling woman with a baby on her hip waiting patiently behind me in line at the Sears check-out counter? Any of these people could be drug dealers, serial killers, thieves, rapists or prostitutes.

So what exactly is the law enforcement community looking for when they use that infamous word “suspect”? It all begins with a profile. A profile is a description of suspects or vehicles that are considered most likely to be involved in a crime. (Remsberg, pg 45)

Types of Profiling

There are two types of profiling: general profiling and specific profiling. General profiling is part of the general investigative analysis of any crime and specific profiling uses evidentiary facts at the crime scene to draw a typology of the behavioral characteristics and psychological make-up of the perpetrator of the crime. (Palermo, pg 383)

Profilers use facts and patterns to patchwork together a blanket that can be laid out like a map pointing towards certain more probable suspects. They analyze past crimes, interview criminals and victims, and look at the probability behind certain actions and alibis.

Profiling is a science and art put together. There is a vast amount of knowledge of human behavior and the psychology of the human mind required in criminal profiling and since each perpetrator is unique in their behavior, actions and thoughts profiling is still a work-in-progress. 

History of Criminal Profiling


Profiling is a relatively new idea in the field of law enforcement and therefore most agencies and branches had little knowledge or direction in criminal profiling until the 1950’s. “At that time, a Philadelphia agent by the name of Walter Mclaughlin developed his own classes based on his personal experience in the field and the few academic resources that were available. McLaughlin is credited with developing the world’s first sexual-crime classification system for law enforcement.” (DeLong pg 154) McLaughlin, along with other pioneers, helped to take the first steps towards criminal profiling in law enforcement. Later, in the 1970’s the groundwork was laid by the FBI’s criminal personality research project. Interviews were conducted with nearly 40 serial killers and the project eventually gave rise to the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit (formerly the Behavioral Science Unit) at Quantico, Virginia. (Klump, pg 124)

Since then profiling has been used by the DEA and FBI in numerous cases with much success. “During the last quarter of the 20th century, the FBI profiled and classified, among others, sex offenders, sadistic murderers, serial killers, domestic violence offenders, isolated spree murderers, and mass murderers.” (Palermo, pg 383-384)

Candice DeLong, a special agent for the FBI, talks about the success she’s had in profiling in her auto-biography. She used her skills as an FBI profiler to help bring the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, to justice; Kaczynski was wearing her son Seth’s ski parka when he was escorted away by the FBI. DeLong wrote about several cases in which profiling was essential to the success of their mission. With such outstanding results and success in the field of profiling one would think that it would have revolutionized law enforcement as we know it.

Criminal Profiling Today


However today, officers rarely utter the ‘P word’ except among themselves. For good reason, profiling has sparked controversy, lawsuits, and condemnation and is now officially prohibited by most agencies.” (Remsberg, pg 45) Why has criminal profiling become such an issue in law enforcement?

Traffic stops, racial profiling and practicing the “traditional profile pattern”(Remsberg, pg 45) has caused problems among the community and among law enforcement administration.  Law enforcement officers have extended on the criminal profiling that was being used by the FBI and DEA and have begun to incorporate it into their daily traffic patrol.

The traditional profile pattern of a drug dealer would have been a male, Hispanic or black, 20-45 years old, overindulging in jewelry, unshaven and unkempt, driving a heavy, roomy car with tinted windows and traveling at night on an interstate highway. (Remsberg, pg 45) Although this profile still fits a sizeable portion of our drug dealers today, using it as a reliable source is not possible! Drug dealers today have expanded their image and profile to make it much more complex than the traditional profile pattern.

Today we see all races, all ethic groups, all nationalities and all genders in the drug business. (Remsberg, pg 46) Any person driving on our roadways could be a possible carrier of drug contraband. We can’t focus our aim on such a narrow slice of the pie. Women, children, teenagers, grandparents, disabled people, business-men and women, and college students are all suspects today and should have been in the past.

Law enforcement officers need to look at the whole picture and take into account all the facts surrounding the incident. If not, officers will end up looking down a dark tunnel and not seeing the whole picture. Law enforcement officers could be missing suspects and crimes because they are too close-minded to suspect the unsuspicious.

What defines suspicion? A law enforcement officer can make deductions and create suspicion in him/herself by looking at other elements of the crime, just as profilers do.

Traffic stops are an easy way for an officer to get into trouble. Pulling over a vehicle under the pretenses that it was suspicious because of the driver’s appearance and for no other reason is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Instead, the officer can look for other things when doing traffic stops.

Law enforcement officers need to begin to train themselves in what is “ordinary” and what is “out of the ordinary”. Being observant early-on in your career can help you notice things that a civilian would not. Once you have honed-in on this skill, use it! If you notice something out of the ordinary it could be potentially criminal.

There are several out of the ordinary clues to watch for when patrolling traffic. A sleeping passenger or the visibility of pillows and bedding may suggest a team that’s splitting the driving to keep moving on long runs. (Remsberg, pg 51) Rental vehicles offer traffickers reliability and a certain distancing from contraband. Look for well-maintained vehicles that won’t break-down on the trip. (Remsberg, pg 52) Also look for any odd behavior near state lines. Some drivers carry different plates for every state and switch at the state lines. (Remsberg, pg 53) These are some major indications of drug trafficking across the country.

These are the types of things law enforcement officers need to watch out for. Focusing less on profiling and more on 'what's out of the ordinary in this picture?' This is where profiling has it's true roots and it's credibility.


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    • profile image

      Johne874 3 years ago

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    • profile image

      big daddy oreo 3 years ago

      Paint the pigs black!

    • Joseph Vandyke profile image

      Joseph Vandyke 4 years ago

      Great article, observation really is key.

    • ddsurfsca profile image

      ddsurfsca 6 years ago from ventura., california

      This topic has roots that touch many people in our communities these days. Not only do people get profiled for drug offenses, but whole neighborhoods get profiled for places to set us their stings. This has a whole different and wide spread effect that just taking one person to jail. Good hub, and I will be watching for more.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      This is interesting. :)

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