When Profiling Turns Out To Be Successful

This video from the 1957 captures a major law enforcement victory: one of the most horrific criminals of the time finally got arrested. His name was George Metesky, and he had terrorized New York City for 16 long years. Metesky, better known as the Mad Bomber, managed to plant at least 33 bombs, of which 22 exploded. The most fascinating fact about the Mad Bomber’s case is that his arrest wouldn’t have been made without a detailed behavioral profile. In general, profiling is a process of drawing inferences about a criminal’s personality, behavior, motivation, and demographic characteristics based on the crime scenes and other evidence. Profiling asks the same question as the majority of the criminology theories: why was the crime committed? This procedure became well known to the public when the famous show “Criminal Minds” was aired.

Unlike the general public, scientists and forensic researchers are more skeptical. They report that there is no empirical support for behavioral profiling. From the scientific viewpoint, profiling is subjective and comes down to the individual analyst’s intuition, rather than to any objective scale or a test. It also tends to rely on vague descriptions (e.g., the killer has a rich, fantasy life”). As a result of this subjectivity, all sorts of problems emerge, including tunnel vision. Specifically, tunnel vision is a phenomenon that makes investigators look for a suspect that only fits the profile ( e.g., “a white male in his 30s”), thus diverting the focus from plausible suspects that do not fit the profile. The Olympic Bomber arrest is the most dramatic case of the “tunnel vision” resulting from an inaccurate profile. It destroyed a life of an innocent Richard Jewell, who was convicted of this crime only because he fit profile to a T. Because of the facts described above, behavioral profiling is largely discredited. The more popular, alternative approaches in today’s criminology are geographic profiling and case-linkage.

However, the Mad Bomber case shows us that profiling is useful and not necessarily as subjective as the researchers tend to think. Metesky planted his first bomb in 1940, and the law enforcement experts and the bomb investigation unit made little progress. It was not 1956, that NYPD gave up and asked a psychiatrist James Brussel to generate a profile. Brussel instructed police to look for a man who was in his 40s or 50s, Roman Catholic, foreign-born (most likely Slavic), single, and living with a brother or sister. He would also be a present or former Consolidated Edison factory worker. Brussel also added: “When you find him, chances are he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned”.

The man the police eventually arrested—George Metesky—was a single, unemployed, 54 year-old former employee of Consolidated Edison who was living with two older sisters. When the police took him into custody, he was allowed to go into his room and change from his bathrobe. He emerged from his room wearing a double-breasted blue suit. Buttoned. Brussel’s profile was actually based on the evidence, rather than intuition. He estimated the gender of the criminal based on the fact that all known bombers are typically male, and he estimated his foreign origin based on the writing analysis that indicated particular wording common for Eastern-European peoples. In conclusion, I believe that behavioral profiling shouldn’t be that easily discredited and underappreciated. The Mad Bomber case provided evidence for its usefulness. That being said, I think that different approaches complete, rather than compete. And alternative, widespread measures as geographical profiling and case-linking should be used in combination with the traditional behavioral profiling for more accurate and comprehensive investigation process.

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