Criminal Profiling and the Magic of the Fashion Police

Is criminal profiling the latest fad in law enforcement? Does fact merge with fiction to produce sleight of hand deceptions? Has Hollywood capitalized on the public’s imagination of myth and magic? If recognize the fiction over the fact, how come some many have bought into it? Are we so obsessed by quick and easy solutions to crimes that we pursue any possibility? Okay, so these are just a few questions we could ask the myriad of so-called experts. You know, all those who’ve surfaced over the past decade. They show up on news shows offering they’re self-induced solutions to some heinous crime. Some are retired law enforcement types. Others are ensconced in the protective realm of their academic regalia. As such, the collective of mental mayhem clouds and confuses the reality of human criminality. So, instead of crime analysis, we have profiling. New names for old ways of following the same processes and procedures. But, in an era of fast food, quick answers, instant gratification and rapid solutions to every puzzle, we’ll chase any alleged new scheme. The fad of new fiction is easy to accept, so long as they are well-marketed, dressed nicely and look pretty. Smoke and mirrors are everything to the deception of public reception. That’s at least what we see on TV. Where else, other than police work, can so many outside the profession come to aid the police? The wide-eyed glee of solving sensational crimes comes from the drama of fictional portrayals.

But, that’s not very encouraging. If the police need so much help, from people who’ve never been inside a patrol car, or walked a beat, then why do we need the police? Isn’t that what we recruit, hire and train the police to do in the first place? That is, be highly skilled, proficient and expert in the field of criminology. And, at the same time, aren’t we supposed to provide the resources to ensure that expertise? Okay, that said, why all the psychic gurus any way? Wait, maybe it’s that old idea about the “expert’? You know, if you come from out of town, carry a briefcase, wear an expensive suit, charge a huge consulting fee, you’re an expert. It also helps if you appear on major networks, give a few opinions, and guess about a bunch stuff. Actually, you can make things up. We call those theories. And, if you look good on camera, we’ll actually believe what you’re saying a lot easier.

Why can’t we keep it simple? Get back to basics and pursue the fundamentals of good police work. One answer is, we’re too impatient. Another is that we have to look good. The press, politicians and the public want window dressings. They think they need “feel good stories with happy endings” in order to “feel safe” in a world of predators. Myth, magic and metaphor are important within the psychological necessity of explaining the world around us. However, at times, the illusions are translated into literal interpretations that foster dogmatic acceptance of ancient superstitions. So, with silver bullets, wooden stakes and holy water, we pursue the “demons”. Chasing the “monsters” as “mind hunters” on a medieval gothic landscape, we make sure the cameras are rolling. With cinematic invention, we rush to use generic templates of ever expanding complexity. The paradox of course is that we think we’re making things simpler.

As opposed to dramatic cloak and dagger antics of the “hunt”, why can’t we admit that human behavior is not easily catalogued, defined or predicted? Let’s just say, for example, that the old idea of modus operandi, or M.O., is a continuum. An ongoing process of thought and action to carry out motive, intent and desire. It’s not some mystical notion about slaying “dragons” or getting inside the “criminal mind”. If the “mind” is an illusion created by the cerebral processes of the brain, then how can you find it? Where do you look? Or for that matter, how do you get inside of it if it doesn’t exist? And, if you want to get “inside” the “criminal mind”, then just think like a normal human being. Because the only difference between them and us, is the criminal chose to commit a crime. Carried his or her ideation into reality. The rest of us are still thinking it over. We all do bad stuff. Yet, how can we tell? You decide along a continuum of ideation. Good versus evil, a process of personal decision making. Fantasizing about this or that, we make choices as to what we want. Some of us choose to do heinous and cruel things to others. We all look for targets of opportunity.

For most us, we’ll eventually do something wrong. Will it be a stop sign violation, cheating on taxes, breaching a contract, hitting a spouse or something more devious? All depends on how we think doesn’t it? The continuum continues from thought to fruition. M.O. is a way of thinking about capabilities, skill-sets and gain absent the risk of discovery. So, how easy is it to define, describe or define human behavior? Answer: not very easy. At best, assessing criminal behavior boils down to creative guesswork. That’s what profiling does, makes guesses. So, basing the future success of an investigation on guesswork should be a suspicious endeavor. The neurological processes of human thought are individually far too complex. Thinking, which leads to behavior, is multidimensional while, at the same time, mysterious. We don’t really know what a person is thinking at given moment in time. All that stuff is hidden and buried in the dark recesses of human motive, intent and desire.

We only know what people are willing to tell us. If they happen to be a criminal, then how can we believe with absolute certainty someone who commits crimes? Isn’t that why we call them a criminal? They’re deceptive, devious and dishonest. And, anything they say is subject to question. Using simplistic formulas, statistics and templates puts human behavior in little compartments. People can adapt, change motives, alter methods and otherwise change their behavior. But, in the movies, a different story of magic, myth and mystery are told. We tend to think major crime scene investigations are all too easily figured out. Just by “reading” the scene we supposed to be able to see “inside the criminal mind”. Well, if the mind’s an illusion created by cerebral chemistry, then how can we “see” something that doesn’t really exist? So, while “profiles” summarize questionable possibilities, the necessity good forensic evidence remains crucial to the overall investigation. Instead, a continuum of effective and efficient police work is essential. Fads forming around fiction don’t solve crimes. Good police work does. Crime scene reconstruction and analysis, proactive investigative tactics, aggressive patrol efforts, articulate documentation and behavioral assessment of the people involved are elements within this continuum of operational investigative strategy.

Television shows are great at adding to the legerdemain of police fiction. While entertainment is essential to our American culture, we get sidetracked from reality and slumber into urban legends. At the same time, these superficial and naïve approaches to real life sooner or later infect public policy. Pandering politicians, reacting to public and media pressure, sooner or later meddle in police operations. An urgency, or rush to judgment ensues, adversely impacting investigative efforts. Political acquiescence to find “feel good” solutions, stifle critical crime analysis. That interferes with proactive persistent police work. Instead, what we see is the magic of urban legend at work. Profilers have become magicians wearing psychic hats performing amazing fetes of profound criminological solutions. Movies portray such conjurers jetting coast to coast, consulting and solving complex acts of human behavior. With unlimited budgets, over-staffed teams and high-tech equipment, the performers cast the spell of rapid case closure. Proposing the most amazing assertions of type cast criminals, they come to the aid of the criminal justice community, rescuing the police in the nick of time. For some of us, we seem to be losing the skillful art of the investigative process. The percentage of major crimes being solved seems to be decreasing. In spite of stupendous innovations like the alleged successes of profiling, “reading crime scenes” and “getting inside the criminal mind”, clearance rates appear to be suffering significantly nationwide.

As a result of wishful thinking, the illusion of fallacies of inference, bring us to the edge of faulty beliefs. Guesswork gets transformed and packaged into the fad of fashionable deception supported by broad generalizations. Sometimes, we put on the cloak of the latest gee whiz in-thing to do. Such bias takes us into the Sci-fi of things like polygraphs and psychic investigators. Misleading us into the hoax of quick, easy and reliable solutions, we rush into the acceptance of nebulous notions. To reassure a naïve public and a ratings obsessed media, we rush unwittingly to embrace the latest trend of some theoretical criminological craze. Yet, in the end, the arrogance of investigative bias and preconceived notions must be controlled to every extent necessary. Identifying the perpetrator, gathering the evidence and solving the case, relies on dedicated and determined efforts of competent police officers. Such efforts are based on valid foundations of logic, reason and solid evidence.