In the 1960s and into the early 1980s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) noticed a rise in serial killing cases across the country. Special agents of their Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) began profiling criminals informally using crime scene information to deduce common characteristics and behaviors of serial killers.
After this informal criminal profiling program began to show promise, the study was formalized during the Reagan administration in 1982 with a grant from the National Institute of Justice. The Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) studied thirty-six convicted and incarcerated sex slayers from a law enforcement perspective. Extensive data was collected from 1979-1983 of one-hundred and eighteen crime scenes and victims (mostly women) from these thirty-six serial killers.
In 1985, the first data was entered into the VICAP computer system, and it was operational on June 1, 1985. It marked the pioneering use of artificial intelligence technology in crime scene analysis and criminal personality profiling. Today, the FBI's VICAP database is massive and linked to other crime fighting database institutions worldwide like the International Police (INTERPOL) in Europe and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Linkage Analysis System in Canada.
The data in the VICAP study focused on characteristics consisting of physical evidence found at the crime scenes that may reveal behavioral traits of the serial murderer and profile characteristics which are variables that identify the offender as an individual. Together, they help to form a composite picture of the suspect.
A VICAP Crime Analysis Report runs for ten pages of detailed law enforcement reporting. Factors such as age, gender, occupation, intelligence, acquaintance w/victim, residence, mode of transportation, modus operandi, ritualistic behavior, characteristics of the victim, and crime scene signature of the offender are noted and entered into their database. Criminal profiling gives investigative agencies the ability to connect details, recognize patterns of offender behavior, and review national fingerprint and DNA databases which makes manageable the work of narrowing down suspects.
When two or more murders have been committed over time by the same person(s), a dynamic synergistic comparison can give investigators a systematic look at the presence or absence of evidence, the crime scene signature, the comfort zone of the killer, and the possible motives for the murder. Other indicators such as emotional intensity, the rationale for the murder, and any number of factors that stand out to investigators can help make connections.
The intent of crime scene investigation and psychological profiling is to identify the key elements of the scene and the behavioral factors related to the killer, enabling homicide investigators to prioritize leads and apprehend serial killers before they can kill again.
More detailed information on the BSU's groundbreaking study can be found in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives co-written by Robert K. Ressler, former FBI Profiler and late director of Forensic Behavioral Sciences; John E. Douglas, former Unit Chief of the FBI's investigative support group; and Ann W. Burgess, Professor of Psychiatric Mental Health at the University of Pennsylvania.