You are well known for your exceptional career in criminal profiling. Please tell our readers about your background and how you became a famous FBI profiler.
As a child I watched a popular television show called The FBI starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. who played the part of Inspector Erskine. This show was on television for 9 years (1965–74) and had 240 episodes based on the work of the Inspector Erskine, who was all business. He didn’t laugh, didn’t love, and didn’t play. He worked every type of case and flew in a private jet to wherever the action was. In truth, this position was non-existent. A FBI agent was, and still is, assigned to 1 of 59 field offices and generally remains in that office unless transferred. Little did I know in 1970 when I joined the FBI, that one day I would actually create a position within the FBI based on Inspector Erskine that would have me traveling throughout the United States and abroad providing on-site consultations in the form of crime analysis and criminal profiling.
As a young FBI agent I enjoyed investigations that included interpersonal violence, cases where the subjects were attempting to avoid prosecution or confinement, and cases where the subjects were fugitives from justice. While the investigations and arrests were fun, I was really interested in learning something about who they were and why they perpetrated their crimes, particularly violent crimes, against innocent people.
Along the way I obtained graduate degrees in educational psychology, guidance and counseling, and adult education. I enrolled in many abnormal and clinical psychology courses, but while I found the classes interesting, they never really addressed the question of motive. Perhaps because the professors teaching those courses had little, if any, experience with the criminal element.
In 1977 when I was promoted and transferred to the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy, I hoped I would learn more about the motives behind criminal behavior. The students (law enforcement officers enrolled in the criminal psychology classes taught at the FBI Academy) and I found the classes entertaining and sometimes humorous, and the instructors received the highest praises each semester from their students. Yet, I still felt there was something missing. None of these instructors had actually gone into prisons and personally asked violent offenders about the specifics of their crimes. I wanted to know about pre-offense behavior, victim selection, the offender’s personal background, their motivation, their post offense behavior, and how they were identified and apply that information to present-day cases.
By the early 1980s, another colleague and I received a federal grant to conduct research on serial murderers. It seemed obvious to me that to learn from the “experts,” it is necessary to speak with them. My personal mantra in all of my books has always been the following:
“To understand the artist, look at the art work.”
“Behavior reflects personality.”
“The crime is a reflection of the offender.”
The above seemed so obvious that I was surprised and somewhat amused when some people and organizations began praising this enlightenment into the criminal mind. However, not everyone praised my ideas. Individuals in mental health, probation and parole, and corrections did not like what I was advocating. In sum, all I said was that anyone in such positions of responsibility must not base their findings and conclusions on an offender’s self-reporting. The interview is only one piece of the puzzle. The criminal case, which includes analyzing the complete crime scene and autopsy photos (in the case of a homicide); the autopsy protocol; and law enforcement preliminary reports must all be reviewed, and how the offenders were apprehended must be determined. Relying on self-reporting alone is a disservice to the criminal justice system and threatens those who want to live and work in a safe community.
A few years ago on a book tour in New Zealand, I spoke before a group of psychologists and psychiatrists at their institution for the criminally insane. Before I began my lecture I could tell by their body language that they had a problem with me. Apparently, they had read some of my books where I criticized making evaluations of an inmate without ever looking at the facts of the case. Their response to me was that by looking at the crime scene photos or reading preliminary police reports they would unfairly pre-judge the patient/inmate. I responded by saying that if you don’t take time to look at those types of case information then they, as mental health professionals, would have no idea to whom they were talking. I told them they cannot and should not rely on self-reporting alone because the bad guys lie. They may not have liked what I said, but that is the truth based on my own experiences.
During the span of your career, the progression of criminal profiling made vast advancements. Can you describe your position as an FBI profiler and your role in implementing the expansion of this field?
In 1977, when I was transferred to the FBI Academy as a criminal psychology instructor, the criminal profiler position did not exist. After first conducting the research and then passing on what I learned in classes, we began to receive cases for analysis. Starting in 1981 I began creating a criminal profiling program within the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. During the first year we received approximately 54 cases and every subsequent year the caseload expanded. By the time I retired from the FBI in 1995, we were analyzing over 1,000 cases a year. When I retired I had 43 employees in my unit. Only 12 of those employees profiled, so it was very stressful for all of us. We had to deal with life and death situations with very short deadlines.
Even today, there are many people who think the FBI only profiles serial murder cases. In reality, the majority of cases are single homicides, and every type of violent crime has been researched and analyzed by profilers.
Profiling is not the only investigative tool available. For example, there are some cases where profiling an unknown offender would not be suitable because of the high risk-level of the victim. What could possibly still be provided are proactive techniques, research-based probable cause for search warrants, interview and interrogation techniques, prosecution and defense counseling, and possibly expert testimony.
Criminal profiling is a rough line of work. Please describe some of the more difficult aspects of the job.
The very nature of profiling violent crimes makes for a highly stressful job. One must be able to identify with both the subject and victim in order to answer the investigative formula of why + how = who.
It has been my experience that if a profiler uses the defense mechanism of “isolation of affect” they will not be successful. When I train profilers I tell them they must walk in the shoes of both the subject and victim. You have to experience the feelings and emotions of both.
There is danger in this technique. In 1983 I nearly died in Seattle, Washington, while working on the Green River murder case. I was found in my hotel room in a coma caused by a body temperature btween 104 and 107 degrees. After 5 days in a coma I woke up and found myself paralyzed on my left side. I had viral encephalitis and doctors attributed my weakened immune system to the amount of stress I was under. I was later treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Please describe the most fascinating case of which you have been a part.
There have been many interesting and personally rewarding cases in my career. Most recently I was able to interview Dennis Rader, the “BTK Strangler” whose murders resurfaced after 30 years. I did the original profile in 1979 and later updated it with my colleagues. I briefly wrote and profiled the BTK Strangler in my book Obsession. When I interviewed Rader he told me he read Obsession and personally critiqued my analysis. He said my analysis was very good, but his identification, arrest, and conviction were not attributed to it. In August 2007, Jossey-Bass will be publishing my book on the BTK and during the 2007 ACFEI National Conference I will be presenting this case along with many others.
What else can be learned from your seminars with ACFEI?
Profiling, in the right hands and with good training, can be a viable investigative tool. Those attending the seminar will have a better appreciation and understanding of the overall profiling process. Criminal profiling is not accurately portrayed in the movies and on television. Attendees will learn the process of criminal profiling, and I will demonstrate that criminal investigative analysis is very similar to a physician’s act of diagnosing a patient with an unknown illness or disease. Both the medical doctor and criminal profiler can be wrong at times. We are only as good as the information provided to us for analysis. Unfortunately, not every case investigated is a perfect one, but it is important to recognize the imperfections and consider them in the overall analysis.
ACFEI is made up of members from a wide array of forensic backgrounds. How does your presentation relate to all attendees’ professions?
In the past I’ve spoken to college students, physicians, lawyers, school teachers, nurses, stock brokers, sales personnel, and many other persons from a variety of occupations. At the very least the audience will be entertained in a forensic area with which most are not intimately familiar. Others will find that the seminar will have direct application to their forensic specialty. I hope that everyone attending the seminar will take the information provided, digest it, and then apply it, not only to their work, but also to their lives.