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The Two Types of Offender Profiling

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

Sherlock Holmes glamorised offender profiling a bit, but it's a useful tool for police officers across the world.

Sherlock Holmes glamorised offender profiling a bit, but it's a useful tool for police officers across the world.

Although offender profiling is less glamorous than Sherlock Homes suggests, it can be an extremely useful tool for the police, as it allows potential suspects to be selected with more ease and narrows down potential criminals.

  • One type of offender profiling is the 'top-down approach'. This is heavily used in the US and originates from the FBI. This approach "starts with the big picture and then fills in the details" (Deb Gajic 2017).
  • In contrast, the 'bottom-up approach' is a British method which involves a more scientific and data-reliant technique where crime statistics are used to make predictions of likely suspects.

Below, we will take a closer look at both approaches, the processes they use and their limitations.

The Bottom-Up Approach

David Canter first suggested that offender profiling should be founded on psychological research and developed a three-item offender profiling process:

1. Interpersonal Coherence: This is the idea that people's behaviour is consistent, so their crimes will contain indicators of their everyday lives.

2. Forensic Awareness: Canter suggested that the way a crime is conducted may indicate whether the offender has committed previous crimes. For instance, Davis et al discovered that rapists who removed their fingerprints from a crime scene had previous convictions for burglary.

3. Smallest Space Analysis: Statistics reveal the relationship between certain types of crime and certain types of people and their behaviours. These 'types' are categorised into three groups:

  • Instrumental opportunistic: When an offender uses the easiest method to obtain something.
  • Instrumental cognitive: When a crime was thought through and planned.
  • Expressive impulsive: Crimes heavily influenced by impulse and strong emotions.

Canter also advocated for geographical profiling in which the locations of crimes can reveal the neighbourhood the offender lives in or where they work. Kim Rossmo developed the Criminal Geographic Targeting system, which creates a digital map displaying the likelihood of the offender's closeness to the scene of the crime.

Geographical profiling was a proposed component of offender profiling.

Geographical profiling was a proposed component of offender profiling.

Limitations of the Bottom-Up Approach

Although this method is scientific, it is also subject to bias. This is because all the data which is used to make the profiles is based on criminals who have been caught, so it cannot provide predictions or insight into the types of criminals who remain undetected. Not all crime shows in statistics, which means there is a 'dark figure' of crime. Essentially, this type of profiling doesn't accurately represent the extent of crime, and the offenders who avoid conviction which could potentially send the police searching for the wrong suspects.

Furthermore, Copson discovered that only 3% of police officers found the advice provided by this technique actually useful in locating and convicting the true offender. In fact, the majority of officers do not use bottom-up offender profiling in their cases. This may be due to its time- and money-consuming nature or simply because it is not effective.

Despite Rossmo's continuing support for geographical profiling, his Criminal Geographic Targeting system is no longer used as the police claimed the method did not improve efficiency in offender profiling.

The top-down approach is sometimes criticised as being unscientific.

The top-down approach is sometimes criticised as being unscientific.

The Top-Down Approach

This method is based more on intuition than statistics, so it is criticised for being unscientific. The approach relies on six elements:

1. Profiling Inputs: This is when data from the crime scene is collected such as a description of the crime, details about the victim and their family and the cause of death.

2. Decision Process Models: Factors such as the time and location are taken into account, the profiler may also decide whether the murder was a stand-alone or part of a series of killings.

3. Crime Assessment: The previous information is then used to decide if the offender is organised (planned) or disorganised (unplanned and random).

4. Criminal Profile: A general description of the potential offender is created, which can then be used by the police to narrow down suspects

5. Crime Assessment: If new information is discovered or police are unable to find any leads, the whole process may have to start again from the beginning.

6. Apprehension: The reliability of validity of the overall process is assessed once the offender is apprehended.

Evidence from the crime scene is one of the six elements of the top-down approach.

Evidence from the crime scene is one of the six elements of the top-down approach.

Limitations of the Top-Down Approach

The organised/disorganised distinction is largely criticised because the concepts originated from research on the most dangerous and violent criminals such as Ted Bundy. Not only are criminals unreliable sources of information but the data collected doesn't represent the majority of crimes. Ted Bundy and others like him are only a very small percentage so don't necessarily mirror the 'regular' criminal mind and behaviour.

Also, Turvey notes that the 'organised' and 'disorganised' labels are not distinct categories so may overlap. Douglas suggests including a third 'mixed' group but this would defeat the original purpose of the labels in the first place.

Snook et al criticised the top-down approach for being a 'junk science' which lacks any scientific basis. They suggest that any claims that the profiling is accurate are simply due to the Barnum effect, in which the descriptions are so vague and generalised that they could apply to almost anyone (as with psychic readings and horoscopes).

Another limitation is that intelligent criminals could use this approach to throw off the investigators. For instance, if they commit crimes which seem impulsive and random, then the police may search for someone who is emotional and impulsive rather than someone who is intelligent and calculating.

Which Technique Is Better?

  • The bottom-up approach relies on statistical data and geographical profiling to create an offender profile; despite being scientific it can also be biased.
  • The top-down approach is based on intuition and so it is criticised for not being scientific.

Overall, both techniques could be effective at narrowing down potential suspects. However, neither technique has been perfected yet, which is why they are disregarded in criminal investigations.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan,C. (2016) Psychology A level Year 2 The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom

Gajic, D. (2017) Forensic Psychology A level Revision Notes. Published on Simply Psychology available at https://www.simplypsychology.org/a-level-forensic.html

  • UK Crime Statistics
    Ministry of Justice publishes a range of statistics relating to the operation of the criminal and civil justice systems, on aspects of criminal justice policy, and on other areas of the department’s responsibility.
  • Criminal Profiling: The Reality Behind the Myth
    Information on criminal profiling from the American Psychological Association.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Angel Harper


Movie Whisperer from Moreton Bay, Queensland on September 14, 2019:

Very interesting article. Thanks for writing it!