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John Douglas responds to Malcolm Gladwell
Written by Editor   
Monday, 26 November 2007 05:04

On Monday, November 12, 2007, long time New Yorker staff writer, Malcom Gladwell, penned an editorial on criminal profiling, likening profilers to psychics. To make his point, Gladwell attempts to take the reader through a series of annectdotal and "what if" tales while heavily relying upon the recently published book, "Inside the Mind of the BTK," by FBI criminal profiler and co-author, John Douglas. Not unsurprisingly, Mr. Douglas, responded to Gladwell's opinion piece. Unfortunately, the New Yorker was only willing to reprint a portion of his response. It is therefore with great pleasure that I have been granted permission to republish Mr. Douglas' letter to the editor, in full.


November 11, 2007
Editor
New Yorker Magazine
4 Times Square
New York, NY 10036
Re: MalcolmGladwell - Criminal Profiling Article

To the Editor:

I read with interest Malcolm Gladwell's article "Dangerous Minds."(New Yorker Nov. 6, 2007). Being prominently mentioned throughout, I feltthe need to respond to some of the inaccuracies, misrepresentations and innuendocontained in his story.

Mr. Gladwell calls into question the effectiveness of criminal profiling,comparing it to astrology. But what he fails to understand is that in thehands of an individual with a solid background in investigative methodology,it can, and does, assist police agencies in apprehending criminals.

Like medicine, profiling requires an inordinate amount of experience lacedwith instinct and intuition. Mr. Gladwell has written that "[i]nstinctis the gift of experience. The first question you have to ask yourself is,'On what basis am I making a judgment?' If you have no experience, then yourinstincts aren't any good." So, we agree on something. The more experienceyou have under your belt, the better your instincts will be.

What is it, however, about criminal profiling that has obviously disturbedMr. Gladwell? Perhaps it's the body of movies and TV dramas like CriminalMinds that depict profilers as front-line crime fighters - Dick Tracys ofthe criminal mind. Or, worse, the news programs that rely on the sound bitesof their go-to profilers every time a well-publicized crime breaks.

Books, movies and TV have to tell a good story and 24-hour news channelshave to fill up lots of time but movies are fictional and the 'profilers'appearing on news shows offering their qualified 'profiles' usually have hadlittle or no access to the evidence. Accordingly, take the profiles put outin entertainment and news programs with a very large grain of salt. This isnot how profiling works. Simply stated, a profiler without evidence to consideris like a navigator in a fog. That's why the only time you'll see me on TV- and I'm constantly asked to comment on cases - is when I've had some associationwith the actual investigation.

Had Mr. Gladwell consulted me for his article, I could have told him thefollowing:

  • So-called criminal profilers do much more than draw up vague pictures of a would-be perp. In fact, the FBI has no position designated as "profiler." More times than not, the 'profiler' will provide other investigative suggestions, including proactive techniques, information for probable cause in search warrants, interview and interrogation strategies to be used when the suspect is apprehended, along with prosecutorial strategies. These profilers are often relied upon to provide expert testimony when a case goes to trial.
  • In my latest book, Inside the Mind of BTK, I detail how the Wichita police came to my unit at the FBI in 1984, seeking assistance in their investigation of a serial killer who had terrorized their city. (Not the other way around, as Mr. Gladwell states in his article.) No, we didn't take notes. Nor did we issue a nicely-bound profile report. The reason? We had neither the budget nor the time due to our case loads. It was up to the visiting police to take away what they thought would help their investigation. What we did do was make a variety of suggestions, one of which - the "supercop" technique - turned out to be a significant tool in getting BTK to drop his guard for the first time in three decades. This misstep on BTK's part eventually led to his arrest. The FBI felt so strongly against my divulging this successful technique in my new book that it first sought to prevent its publication.
  • I was not the protege to Howard Teten. I'm also quite sure that Teten would take issue that he was James Brussels' protégé.
  • When I'm developing a profile, I draw upon the experience I've gleaned from working thousands of cases and interviews done with actual serial killers. My research has shown me that each killer is unique. So is each profile. Real profilers don't compartmentalize crimes into organized and disorganized to the exclusion of other factors. Many cases involve elements of both. Nor do we hedge our opinions for fear of being wrong.
  • In Mr. Gladwell's mention of the Bronx rooftop murder case, he invents a profile that would have identified the killer. Mr. Gladwell, of course, knew who the killer was when he wrote his article, so he had the luxury of being able to back into his profile. But he neglects to inform his readers of one very important fact: At the time, the cops' prime suspect was an African-American janitor who worked in the building where the victim lived. Shortly before the murder, he'd quit his job and had never returned his keys. What's more, the crime lab discovered a Negroid hair on the victim, later proven to have come from a previously-used body bag. During the investigation, I informed the cops that their killer was a white resident of the apartment building, someone who they'd already interviewed. It turned out that I was right. Thus, a well-crafted profile can help re-focus an errant investigation and dispel an unwarranted suspicion as well.
  • The crime manual which Mr. Gladwell refers is the Crime Classification Manual (2nd ed.). Contrary to Mr. Gladwell's implications, the book was created with the input from hundreds of law enforcement experts in the United States and Canada. This manual can be found in the offices of countless police agencies throughout North America and is considered a highly-regarded reference tool for investigators.
  • Mr. Gladwell also cites a British-based study which suggests that criminal profiling isn't effective. It's hardly surprising that the researchers came to this conclusion. In the 1980s, a number of British academics and police investigators came to the FBI to learn about criminal profiling. One of the things I told them was that police officers with hands-on investigative experience needed to be trained in profiling. Academic types, I informed them, rarely made effective profilers because they possessed very little actual experience in the street. The university professors, of course, didn't like this. Upon returning home, they took over the role of criminal profiling for the nation's various police departments and, whenever they get the opportunity, enjoy criticizing the way Americans profile cases. What Mr. Gladwell also omits is that the professor who managed this study was a profiler himself, who collaborated with one of Britain's recognized profilers. So is it just American profilers who are suspect in Mr. Gladwell's mind? Or is it just investigative profilers as opposed to academic profilers who are suspect? Mr. Gladwell, it seems, prefers the latter.
  • Though there has been a historical rift between law enforcement and forensic psychology, the trending today is to combine the elements of both in going after violent offenders.

Mr. Gladwell is certainly entitled to his opinions, but he needs to be carefulnot to confuse his opinions and incomplete research and assessments with thefacts. The facts, confirmed by a number of studies not cited by Mr. Gladwell,do, indeed, show that profiling is a respected investigative tool that works.If it didn't, police agencies, nationally and internationally, wouldn't seefit to continue using it to solve cases.

I would be pleased to present a more detailed article if you wish. You may contact me at the above address.

Sincerely,
John Douglas

 

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