Profiling a Killer

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20 March 2012

Profiling a Killer
Professor Glenn D Wilson
Psychological profiling is a useful adjunct to police investigations. It is not a substitute for forensic evidence but may help to focus the search by suggesting what sort of person is likely to be responsible for a crime, where they might live and work and how they might travel.
The type of psychologist popularised by the TV series Cracker excites the public imagination but real profiling is both more prosaic and more scientific. Whereas Cracker brings to bear uncanny intuition into what is going on in the mind of the killer and uses artful interrogation techniques to extract confessions from suspects, modern profilers use cold logic and look to what research experience tells about a crime scene and the likely perpetrator. There is nothing mystical or magical about psychological profiling and certainly nothing “psychic”.
Take the most famous of all serial killers, Jack the Ripper. This is salient in folklore because it occurred around the beginnings of “tabloid” journalism and because the case was never solved. While it is interesting to speculate about the perverted sexual motives of Jack, this would not necessarily have narrowed the search for him. However, details such as his choice of victim, the times and places at which the murders occurred and the mode of killing may have helped. The police surgeon who examined the injuries to the Whitechapel victims (Dr George Phillips) reckoned that the way in which their organs were removed so expertly suggested professional skill, pointing perhaps to a surgeon, butcher or mortuary worker. Phillips’ opinion has been disputed, and we may never know whether he was right, but this is exactly the sort of deduction used by today’s profilers.
Serial killers are distinguished from spree killers by killing 3 or more people with down-time (intervals) in between. They show a number of common traits. They are usually men of around 20-40 years old. They may be loners or have a history of unstable relationships. They move house frequently (perhaps distancing themselves from their crimes). Their employment history is also unstable – usually low-level, itinerant, male-typical jobs that provide no career development (e.g., security man, fairground worker, driver, barman, bouncer or wheel-clamper). They are not usually mad; just psychopaths with a background of child abuse, irresponsibility and spotty criminality such as burglary, trespass and assault. It goes without saying that they are self-serving, skilled liars and lacking in empathy for their victims.
Serial killers are sometimes said to be charming, plausible and intelligent. This may be because the successful ones become best known; those less bright and persuasive get caught on an early outing, so are “nipped in the bud”. In addition, interviews with those most eloquent are more frequently aired. They are also said to be mostly white, but this may be down to selective reporting of cases that occur in “respectable”, middle-class neighbourhoods. Based on percentages of the population, no particular race is under-represented (Morton, 2011).
The motives of serial killers are frequently sexual and sadistic, and may include revenge, impotence and hatred for women. They tend to lack self-esteem and have a need for empowerment. They kill strangers (of a particular category) using intimate, contact forms of killing like as beating, stabbing and strangulation. They may take pleasure in the cruelty inflicted on their victim as evidenced by overkill (e.g., stabbing the victim many more times than necessary to kill them or disembowelling them). Some take souvenirs (trophies), such as clothing, jewellery or body parts to help relive the crimes. Some pride themselves in their ability to terrify the public and baffle the police. Ultimately, they may need to get caught in order to take the credit. Some killers claim to be mission-oriented (e.g., ridding the world of undesirables such as prostitutes); these may be psychotic or rationalising behaviour they enjoy.
Profilers distinguish the modus operandi, which may vary because it depends upon non-essential matters like availability of weapons and access, from signatures, which reveal psychological needs (e.g., ritual aspects of the crime, notes with a nickname, taking of trophies, posing of the corpse and inserting objects into orifices). Signatures are unique and stable (Keppel & Birnes, 2003) hence better for linkage analysis (determining whether the same individual is responsible for a series of crimes).
The signature of the Yorkshire Ripper was a deep wound to the stomach of his victims inflicted with a screw driver after hitting them in the head with a hammer. Peter Sutcliffe was a devout Catholic who claimed to be inspired by the voice of God. However, his detestation for women, especially prostitutes, and the sexual excitement derived from inflicting these deep wounds was probably the true driving force (Burn, 1984). His fetish can be traced to his fascination with a Victorian “educational” exhibit in a Morecambe waxwork museum showing a series of female torsos with windows in their belly illustrating “the nine stages of pregnancy”. According to Sutcliffe’s brother, Peter would linger at this gruesome exhibit with a strange grin on his face. It seems it was this hole in the belly that he sought to replicate with his screwdriver when he attacked a woman. He was caught because, when stopped by police in the Leeds red-light district of Leeds, he tried to hide a tool-kit containing a hammer and screwdriver.
Various types of serial killer have been suggested. The FBI distinguish organised and disorganised types (Turvey, 1999; Canter et al, 2004). Organised killers are said to be above average in IQ. They plan their crimes carefully, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They operate more by daytime, engage victims in conversation and lure them with cunning ploys. (Ted Bundy put his arm in a fake plaster cast and asked women to help carry something to his car.) They control the crime scene carefully so as to leave few clues, have a knowledge of forensics and follow their case in the media. They are more likely to be socially adequate, with friends, lovers, wife and children.
Disorganised killers have below average IQ, are socially inadequate and likely to live alone, near the location of their crimes. They are impulsive; using whatever weapon is to hand and make no attempt to hide the body. They operate at night, depersonalise the victim and leave a chaotic crime scene. They have minimal interest in the media or police work and often have a history of mental illness.
Holmes and Holmes (1998) propose five subdivisions:

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