6 Key Moments in the History of Criminal Profiling

When many people think of criminal profiling, they might think of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit that’s since been popularized by film and TV in movies like Silence of the Lambs or shows like Mindhunter. But did you know that it got its start much earlier—and outside of the U.S? Or that its influence has extended far beyond FBI Headquarters to help smaller agencies, like those at the state and local levels, track serial killers or potential terrorists?

Below we explore some of the key moments in the history of the practice:Criminal Profiling History

1888: Police surgeon Thomas Bond compiles the first criminal profile to help determine the identity of Jack the Ripper. Although Jack the Ripper was never apprehended, Bond’s assessment of autopsy notes and crime scene evidence appears to be the first application of criminal profiling. Bond believed the killer was sexually motivated, likely a respectably dressed middle-aged man with both “solitary and eccentric” habits, not regularly employed, and had no scientific or anatomical knowledge. 

1957: Criminologist Dr. James Brussel develops a “portrait” of New York City’s then-unknown “Mad Bomber.” Starting in 1940, George Metesky hid 33 pipe bombs around New York City; 22 of the bombs detonated and 15 people were injured over the course of 16 years. Dr. Brussel was contacted by his friend Captain John Cronin to help the NYPD identify their suspect. Although the profile was not directly responsible for his capture, several of Brussel’s predictions were true, including how he dressed and with whom he lived, highlighting the practice as a potential crime-fighting tool. 

1974: The first criminal profile is used to successfully apprehend serial killer David Meirhofer. In 1974, Montana FBI agent Pete Dunbar attended a workshop taught by agents Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten who believed that crime scene evidence could be analyzed to predict an unknown suspect’s behavior. Mullany and Teten worked with Dunbar to create a suspect profile which helped narrow down their pool of suspects. Meirhofer had been a suspect since the beginning, but he had managed to fly under the radar after he passed lie detector and truth serum tests. 

1980: Forensic nurse Ann Burgess joins Robert Ressler and John Douglas at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Burgess’ pioneering work in studying rape victims caught the attention of then-FBI Director William Webster, who brought her to Quantico to teach classes on what talking to sexual assault victims taught her about perpetrators. She teamed up with Ressler and Douglas and helped formalize their serial killer behavioral interview and research process as well as create a criminal profiling procedure. It was her push to establish a methodology around gathering this important information that made the law enforcement community take notice of its potential. 

1985: Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) was created to help connect serial/transient murders across jurisdictions and was the brainchild of LAPD homicide detective Pierce Brooks. Brooks became the first ViCAP program manager when it launched in 1985, and at the time, it existed on a single computer at FBI headquarters in Quantico. Over time, ViCAP evolved into what it is today—a national repository for all violent crimes including homicide, sexual assault, missing persons, and unidentified human remains by finding potential links between cases by using criminal profiling data like modus operandi, signature aspects, crime scene evidence, victim details, and more. In 2008, ViCAP became directly accessible to local, state, and federal agencies for the first time through a secure web portal. 

2010: The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BTAC) becomes the first national level, multi-agency task force focused on preventing terrorism and other targeted violence, including school/active shooters, workplace violence, and stalking. It is composed of researchers, mental health professionals, agents, and analysts from agencies such as the FBI, ATF, Capitol Police, Marshals Service, and the DoD. Together, they work to track persons of concern and use early intervention to prevent violence, meaning many individuals are managed successfully before any crimes are committed. BTAC also studies acts of terrorism and mass casualty events to improve future prevention.

Considering how much the practice of criminal profiling has evolved in just the last 50 years, it’s safe to say we will continue to see advancements and new applications that will help us get potential suspects off the streets and into the interview hot seat that much faster.