Monday, May 3, 2010

Profiling . . . the serial killer kind

This whole Arizona thing has kicked off many discussions about profiling of the racial kind. They remind me a lot of the arguments floated for and against profiling after 9/11, when some advocated using it to identify potential terrorists.

I'm not going to discuss either, you may be relieved to hear, because after my serial killer seminar I've been thinking about profiling of the behavioral kind.

And interestingly, that kind of profiling seems to reverse the process when compared to the Arizona/terrorist type. Here's what I mean:

When you have a crime scene that an FBI profiler looks at, he takes clues from something that has happened (a murder) and makes a general statement about the kind of person who might be responsible. For example, the neatness of the scene and the lack of physical evidence left behind might indicate an unsub who is intelligent and organized. Or excessive violence might suggest the killer was someone who knew the victim, had a personal grudge. In other words, he doesn't start with a bad guy and try and attach a crime to him, he starts with the crime and tries to guide an investigation towards the bad guy.

The other kind seems to start by pointing at an individual and moving on to a supposed or possible crime. I've just started thinking about this, so maybe there are other distinctions but I mention it only because the two very different law enforcement tools seem to share the same name: "Profiling."

Now, to be clear, my opinion is that even for the FBI-serial killer profiling, is should only be done
by those who have made a real study of it And perhaps when they know a crime has been committed) because it's open to abuse. I wrote a paper in law school on profiling and found some pretty funny applications. For instance, when looking for drug smugglers LE (law enforcement) would identify those who were last to leave the plane, using the theory that the people were nervous about getting off and wanted to wait until the customs officers were tired/bored and wouldn't look too hard.

Then there were cases where LE identified smugglers because they were first off the plane. Obviously, those guys were trying to dash through customs with their merchandise -- time is money, you know. Also, the theory was that smugglers knew LE looked at the last passengers and so coming off first was less suspicious (you know suspicious: lurking and being the last off the plane).

And guess who else LE targeted? Yes, you got it! The smugglers in the middle of the pack. Those dodgy geezers were obviously trying to hide themselves and not raise suspicion.

Think about that next time you get off an airplane.


  1. I'm reminded of the recent case from the Texas 7th Court of Appeals: Gonzalez-Gilando v. State.

    Officers were suspicious of Gonzales-Gilando because the car was too clean, wasn't sporty enough for the occupants and the driver obeyed all traffic laws and looked away from the police when they passed.

    I liked this line from the opinion: "Yet, just because an officer once encountered a bald male who ate spaghetti while wearing a suit who later drove away in a particular car and ultimately engaged in criminal conduct does not permit him to rationally deduce that everyone else who happens to do the same things may also be engaging in misconduct."

  2. even worse is when the conventional wisdom type profiling you describe is then used to determine serious issues of criminal liability.

    i'm reminded of the Cameron Todd Willingham case, where the arson investigator relied on arson identification techniques that were basically old wive's tales, and were later wholly repudiated by scientific study. However, Willingham's sentence based on the testimony given by the arson investigator was upheld and he was executed.

    Scary stuff.

  3. Although, to be fair, anyone who is eating spaghetti while wearing a suit is asking for trouble of some kind.


Comments posted to this blog are NOT the opinion of the Travis County D.A.'s office, under any circumstances. They are only the personal, non-representative opinion of D.A. Confidential if posted under his name.
I welcome all comments, as long as they are expressed with politeness and respect. I will delete all comments that I deem to be personal attacks, or that are posted merely to antagonize or insult.