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The Reality of Criminal Profiling

When the mysterious serial killer Jack the Ripper roamed through the gritty and foggy streets of London in the 19th century, detectives from the Criminal Investigation Department of London’s Metropolitan Police were baffled by the alleged murderer’s skill in erasing his tracks. To aid their endeavor, the detectives put together a profile of the killer in the hopes of being able to run into the suspect as they conducted their investigation.

Jack the Ripper was never confirmed to have been apprehended; however, the investigation resulted in the development of criminal profiling, which is widely used these days by law enforcement officials. Television dramas such as Profiler, Criminal Minds and Law & Order: Criminal Intent are based on criminal profiling as a forensic tool that can be used to augment the work of law enforcement officials and prosecutors, but this is also an activity that sometimes fail society and that can be subject to unethical abuse.

Purpose of Criminal Profiling

There are three objectives that criminal profiling seeks to achieve: Provide behavioral and social assessments of criminals, investigate how objects used by suspects may help them commit crimes, and to help investigators solve complex crimes.

Criminal profiling has been successfully used to solve cases that rival Jack the Ripper in scope and complexity. For example, serial bomber George Metesky was identified and arrested thanks to psychological profiling of his correspondence in the 1950s. The arrests of serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway were aided by extensive profiling.

Criticism and Abuse of Criminal Profiling

Although the intent of criminal profiling is clearly scientific, the investigative results are not always accurate. Critics often mention that criminal profiling is more art than science, and some police departments and government agencies, particularly in the United States, have debased this activity by introducing elements such as demographics, economics, race, and ethnicity to guide their actions. This is known as racial profiling.

Gang suppression units and crime intelligence departments at law enforcement agencies often engage in racial profiling without even realizing it. A new trend in police work is crime prevention through behavioral and socioeconomic analysis combined with some elements of criminal profiling; to some critics, this practice sounds more like the precognition police officers in the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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