One of my fave TV shows is Criminal Minds, and so one of the first approaches to catching criminals I researched was profiling. If you’ve ever watched that show, you’ll know that the FBI identifies information about a criminal based on their behaviour at the crime scene, location of the crime, location of the dump site and time frames.
It’s fascinating to watch as a viewer, but what are the actual theories behind profiling, and how can understanding these help us to write a better crime novel?
What is geographical profiling?
A consultant ‘profiler’ is brought in when the identity of the offender is unknown, the crime is serious, and is most effective when we are dealing with a series of crimes thought to be attributed to the same criminal.
Geographical profiling is a method of identifying a most likely area the offender lives (sometimes called ‘anchor point’ or ‘home base’), based on key locations connected to a series of crimes. These locations could include the initial location the victim is spotted, the crime scene and the dump site.
If this approach works, it can save the investigative team a hell of a lot of time and wasted resource. After all, narrowing down your search to within a few miles enables you to concentrate patrols and searches for the suspect.
Here are a few of the main theories:
Routine Activities Theory
For a crime to occur, the following MUST be present: A motivated offender, a vulnerable target or victim and the absence of a capable guardian, all meeting in the same place.
If any one of these elements is missing, the crime cannot occur. For example, a motivated murderer comes across a suitable, vulnerable target in an alleyway, but the presence nearby of police, civilians or obvious CCTV may act as ‘guardians’ that deter the killer.
Due to the requirement of all three elements, crimes tend to occur in clusters. These areas tend to be high activity spaces – routes to work, recreational and social spaces.
At certain times of the year the three elements are more likely to come together. At Christmas more people leave their homes to go shopping, meaning an increased opportunity for a murderer to find a suitable target. This could also account for the so-called ‘Saturday effect’. There is around a 60% increase in homicide rate on a Saturday compared to all other days of the week combined.
Crime Pattern Theory
Along a similar vein, crime pattern theory states that the killer creates a mental map of the areas and routes in which they carry out day-to-day activities. It is within these familiar areas that the victim will be chosen.
Distance Decay Theory
This theory states that an offender will travel a limited distance to commit crime. This distance is further than the ‘buffer zone’ (the area immediately surrounding their home), but not too far.
Statistics for murders taking place in London between 2000-2010 showed that 50% of the offenders lived within just 1 mile of the crime scene.
‘Too far’ differs depending on whether the offender’s home is in a built up or rural area. For example an offender may travel up to 10 miles in a town or city to find a victim. In the countryside this could increase to 20 miles to find a suitable victim.
The idea of the ‘buffer zone’ has been likened to the behaviour of bees when foraging for pollen, in a BBC News article here. Much in the same way bees do not forage immediately around their nests, for fear that a predator may locate their home, a criminal does not commit crimes on his doorstep for fear of being caught, perhaps by neighbours who might recognise him.
This information aids a profiler – we could assume a criminal does not live in very close proximity to the crime scene. They are also unlikely to have travelled more than, say, 20 miles. This gives us a rough geographical area around the scene that the criminal likely resides.
Rational Choice Theory
The killer applies a cost-benefit analysis to the situation, to reach an outcome of least effort but sufficient gain.
The criminal assesses the risks of the scenario such as getting caught, getting hurt and costing too much money. This is weighed against the potential benefit: killing the victim.
The offender is therefore more likely to commit the act at the first opportunity they get within the comfort zone. This has the benefit of being able to kill without too much cost in terms of travel, time or risk of harm or discovery.
Over to you
Have you considered how your killer first meets their victims and the setting? What is the distance from the offender’s home to the crime scene? How might they travel to reach their victim?
Comment your thoughts below!
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