September 14, 2010

Backlash growing against criminal profiling

UK Guardian: "Psychological profiling 'worse than useless' "

In the beginning, there was Malcolm Gladwell's 2007 masterpiece in the New Yorker, exposing criminal profiling as clever sleight of hand. Three years later, reports in both New Scientist and the Guardian of UK are expressing mounting concerns over the pseudoscientific technique made bigger than life in fictional TV shows.

Leading the backlash is psychology professor Craig Jackson of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. He will critique the scientific validity of profiling at the British Science Festival this week. Not only is profiling unscientific, say Jackson and a growing chorus of others, but it risks bringing the field of psychology into disrepute. As Ian Sample reports in today's Guardian:
In many cases, offender profiles are so vague as to be meaningless, according to psychologist Craig Jackson. At best, they have little impact on murder investigations; at worst they risk misleading investigators and waste police time, he said.

"Behavioural profiling has never led to the direct apprehension of a serial killer, a murderer, or a spree killer, so it seems to have no real-world value," Jackson said.
Despite profiling's lack of demonstrated validity, police forces around the world bring in behavioral experts in complex or high-profile cases, often to appease victims' families or the media. In the UK, for example, The Home Office keeps a register of experts who are qualified to render offender profiles based on crime information, the Guardian reports.
"It is given too much credibility as a scientific discipline. This is a serious issue that psychologists and behavioural scientists need to address," [Jackson] said. "People believe psychologists like 'Cracker' can exist." In the 1990s television series, police apprehended criminals with help from an overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic psychologist.

Jackson quoted one behavioural scientist as saying he "climbs inside the minds of monsters" and "takes the expression frozen on the face of a murder victim and works backwards."

"They bring themselves forward as if they are shamans who are cursed by nightmares and picturing dead people," Jackson said.
Jackson argues that, since people from marginalized groups are the primary victims of murder, "if we really want to deliver on the objective of reducing the numbers of people who fall victim to violent crime, then we would be just as well concentrating on eradicating homophobia, prejudice against sex workers and the elderly, rather than 'delving' into the heads of serial killers."

In an interview published today in the London Evening-Standard, the vice-chair of the British Psychological Society's forensic psychology division distanced forensic psychologists from criminal profiling. Carol Ireland said forensic psychologists worked in a wide range of areas, including offender risk assessments and interventions, helping victims, and conducting research.

A critical report by Jackson and two colleagues, "Against the Medical-Psychological Tradition of Understanding Serial Killing by Studying the Killers," is slated for publication next month in the legal journal Amicus Curiae, published by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London.

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