Saturday, May 15, 2010

Criminal Profiling

I'm like a lot of people. I got seduced by the wonderful story that criminal profiling was a gee whiz technique to find especially dangerous criminal like serial killers. Well, the Guardian has a very interesting piece by Jon Ronson about the real history of criminal profiling and it ends up it is mostly junk science.
One day, 70 years ago, a package was left on a windowsill at the Consolidated Edison power plant in New York. It was a bomb, with a note attached: "CON EDISON CROOKS – THIS IS FOR YOU." It didn't explode. However, 33 more successful devices did and, at a loss, the NYPD did something no one had ever attempted outside the pages of a Conan Doyle novel. They handed the case file to a psychiatrist, a West Village man called James Brussel. He closed his eyes, went into a kind of trance and – as he later reported in his bestselling memoir, Casebook Of A Crime Psychiatrist – it came to him.

There was, for a start, something overly formal about the wording of his notes. They spoke of "The Con Edison's dastardly deeds". He seemed foreign-born. And suffering from an Oedipal complex. He was unmarried, a loner, maybe living with his mother. Then Brussel delivered his now legendary coup de grace: " 'One more thing,' I said, my eyes closed tight. I saw the Bomber: impeccably neat, absolutely proper. 'When you catch him he'll be wearing a double-breasted suit.'

" 'Jesus!' one of the detectives whispered.

" 'And it will be buttoned,' I said. I opened my eyes. Without another word, they left."

A suspect soon emerged. He was George Metesky, an unmarried Slavic former employee of Con Edison. They raided his house at midnight. He opened the door in his pyjamas, immediately confessed to being "the mad bomber", went to get dressed and reappeared wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned. And, with that, criminal profiling was born.


Until now, Rainbow explains, the supposition propagated by people such as Britton was that rapists and sex murderers graduated from committing minor sexual offences. It sounded like a shrewd theory, one that gave psychological profilers reasons for existing. Indeed, it was one of the main reasons they first went after Colin Stagg. The problem is, Rainbow now says, they've taken the time to do the statistical research and it turns out not to be true.
The article is fascinating. Read it!

The name Jon Ronson should rings some bells. He wrote the wonderful book Men Who Stare at Goats which has been turned into a film. And he wrote Them: Adventures with Extremists. I've read both these books and heartily recommend them. Ronson is a journalist who goes after the unusual and writes it up with a bit of glee at the out-of-the-ordinary. Fun stuff.

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