Careers in Forensic Behavior Analysis

The explosions began to rock New York City in 1951. Famous locations around the city, including Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and Radio City Music Hall, echoed with the sharp cracks of apparently randomly placed pipe bombs. A note accompanying the bombs indicated that the bomber was upset with Con Edison, the local electric utility, but no demands were made. 1952 became 1953… no one was killed by the low-level explosions, but no suspect emerged either.

1954, 1955, 1956… the explosions continued, and the police continued to come up dry in their investigations.

NYPD Captain James Cronin, frustrated at the lack of progress with traditional investigative techniques, approached a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. James Brussel. Brussel met with investigators and reviewed the evidence, then used his psychological expertise to develop a descriptive profile of the likely suspect.

Brussel’s profile was astonishingly detailed. He described the suspect’s age, expertise, religion, personal characteristics, behavioral traits, and likely motivations. Most intriguingly, Brussel insisted that, when arrested, the suspect would be wearing a double-breasted suit… fully buttoned.

Parts of the profile were published in newspapers on Christmas Day, 1956. On January 18th, a Con Edison employee, reviewing personnel records of discharged employees, recognized a number of similarities in the records to the published profile. Police obtained a search warrant for the home of George Metesky and served it on January 21st. They found bomb-making materials and took Metesky into custody. He was wearing a fully-buttoned up double-breasted suit when he was arrested.

The case was among the first to use psychological techniques of behavioral analysis to develop a criminal profile to assist investigators, but in decades since, the practice has become both common and widely misunderstood.

Analyzing the Criminal Mind to Apprehend Dangerous Felons

The FBI established a Behavioral Science Unit in 1972 to explore the psychological issues of violent crime and to help establish investigative methods to exploit behavioral clues revealed in the course of investigations. Few of the original members had any formal training in behavior analysis, but they did have a strong conviction that human behavior could be consistently and scientifically analyzed.

Since then, criminal profilers have become famous through hit movies and TV shows like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Criminal Minds.” The reality of the job has much less to do with exciting car chases, shootouts, and sexy victims than with careful and consistent analysis of the same sort that behavioral analysts perform in less entertaining fields such as autism treatment and addiction therapy. The common thread is an adherence to the so-called ABCs of applied behavior analysis:

  • Antecedent – The prompt, or initial situation, leading to a behavior.
  • Behavior – The action or behavior in response to the antecedent.
  • Consequence – The reinforcement mechanism associated with the behavior.

For most behavior analysts, the antecedents and behaviors are observable and the consequences adjustable. For criminal behavior analysts, only the behaviors are clear. The analyst formulates theories of antecedent and consequence to explain the evidential behaviors in an attempt to predict things that could help give some indication as to who the perpetrator is:

  • Employment situation and type of job
  • Family status and background
  • Personal tics and preferences
  • Hobbies and formative experiences

For profilers, the test of these predictions comes with the apprehension of the suspect. If the hypothesis was accurate, the profile will have helped to eliminate certain suspects and illuminate new ones. In the movies, profiling takes center stage, but in real life, criminal profilers simply offer one more investigative tool that police look at as part of the total scope of evidence and motive.

Most criminal behavior analysts never get near an actual crime scene. Instead, they work with records compiled by the officers and detectives investigating the crime, searching for behavioral details that may develop into a signature that helps to identify the criminal. This is done by carefully examining evidence left by behaviors and back-fitting possible antecedents. In the Metesky case, for example, the attention to detail evidenced in bomb construction led directly to the prediction of a meticulous nature and anticipation of the neatly buttoned suit the bomber would be wearing.

Short of directly identifying the perpetrator, the behavioral analysis that is worked up can assist in identifying the most likely victim profile so that people that fit the profile can be warned.

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Criminal Behavior Analysts Analyze More Than Just Serial Killers

The popular conception of behavior analysts working in criminal justice focuses almost exclusively on the work of behaviorists analyzing specific, nefarious criminals in a race against the clock. But the reality is that most behaviorists work on far broader subjects of far greater importance than just analyzing the mannerisms of a single criminal.

In fact, the original Behavior Science Unit was split into a number of different groups in 2014 to better reflect this division of duties, each with a particular analytic focus.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) is the primary resource for American law enforcement agencies inn need of profiling services. The NCAVC responds to requests from state and local agencies to apply the expertise of its staff in applied behavior analysis against difficult cases around the world. The Behavioral Analysis Unit handles case-specific analysis work and provides advice for local investigators on behavioral traits and analysis in the traditional profiling role.

But other criminal behavior analysts now work with hostage negotiating teams, advising negotiators how to analyze and manipulate hostage takers on the basis of their backgrounds or behaviors. Others, such as members of the FBI’s Undercover Safeguard Unit, work with law enforcement officers directly, helping them to cope with post-traumatic stress or other routinely distressing job duties. This can include:

  • Training them to work with victims of violent crime
  • Preparing them for exposure to trauma
  • Assisting them in dealing with disturbing crime scenes and materials
  • Training them to recognize fellow officers in mental distress

Other criminal behavior analysts are heavily involved in criminal theory and in the larger field of systems analysis, evaluating societal trends that may serve to encourage or discourage criminal behavior. Other federal and state agencies also employ criminal profilers, including:

  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
  • The Department of Homeland Security
  • State police and large metropolitan police agencies

Find out what’s involved in becoming a criminal profiler.

Tools and Techniques of Behavior Analysis Impact Everyday Policing Around the Country

Some of the tools developed by NCAVC behavior analysts have become critical pieces of daily law enforcement activity even among officers with no training in behavior analysis.

ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, is a computerized database that behavior analysts at the FBI compile to compare behavioral details and likely traits from a wide variety of cases. Local officers can input their case data to look for matches from other jurisdictions to generate new leads. But the system also serves to help track violent crime statistically, providing larger environmental data for legislators and policy makers to work with in formulating effective crime prevention policies.

The BAU also prepares generic profiles to assist law enforcement and even civilians in dealing with crime prevention or response. For example, in response to a spate of school shootings in the mid-1990s, the unit put out a paper with a generic profile of students potentially at risk for committing such crimes. The paper was widely circulated in the education community to allow teachers and administrators to spot possible problems well before they could develop.

At the policy level, studies of criminal behavior provide data for legislators and criminal theorists to adjust laws and punishments to reflect the most effective approach to reducing crime. Studies performed by behavior analysts in Vermont, for example, have been used as resources for reshaping the state’s juvenile justice system, helping to develop processes that discourage recidivism and encourage primary prevention of delinquent behavior.

Preparing for a Career in Criminal Behavior Analysis

Most criminal profilers come to the field through law enforcement careers. The FBI is the most well-known employer. One path to becoming a behavior analyst working in the NCAVC involves becoming a Special Agent.

The requirements to become a Special Agent are:

  • Be older than 23 but younger than 37
  • Hold United States citizenship
  • Have a four-year degree from an accredited institution
  • Have a valid U.S. driver’s license
  • Have at least three years of professional work experience

Additionally, the FBI requires specialized experience in one or more fields that it deems critical. A background in behavior analysis or psychology would fall under the Diversified Special Agent Entry Program.

The Behavior Specialist Unit was originally established to help train agents in behavior analysis techniques, and the NCAVC still offers courses at the Academy in applied behavior analysis.

Not all NCAVC staff are agents, however. It’s also possible to become a specialist working with the center as a civilian contractor. An advanced degree in psychology or criminal justice would be required along with experience in the field for a candidate to be considered for such roles.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) certification will almost always be required while accumulating that experience. Earning the BCBA® requires a master’s degree or higher in psychology, education, or applied behavior analysis. Most candidates who are serious about entering criminal behavior analysis from outside the law enforcement field will probably obtain a doctorate in psychology and enter private practice in a specialty such as forensic psychology or counseling.

It is possible to acquire BCBA® certification even with an advanced degree outside those three fields, however. In fact, some criminal justice master’s programs offer concentrations in behavior analysis that include the required coursework to qualify for BACB certification.

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More Resources for Information on Behavior Analysis in Criminal Profiling

The American Psychological Association’s Forensic Psychology Practice Page – Forensic psychology is a specialized subfield of psychology and has a place in the APA’s community

Association for Behavior Analysis International Special Interest Groups – A Crime, Delinquency, and Forensic Behavior Analysis special interest group that is open to ABAI members for the discussion of profiling issues and techniques

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