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The Psychology Of The Most Heinous Crimes

Behavior psychology, first introduced in the U.S. during the 1960s, is now a widely accepted part of criminal investigation tactics. A French special unit handles some 40 extreme cases a year.

Over the line
Over the line
Soren Seelow

PARIS — A man found dead, a bottle of whiskey stuck in his body. A 70-year-old man murdered in the southwest of France, his tongue and heart ripped out. A night watchman stabbed a dozen times for no apparent reason. These are the sort of cases that seven specially trained police officers handle from their headquarters just outside of Paris.

When an especially bizarre murder is discovered, three of them rush to the crime scene as soon as possible. They work quickly and in silence to avoid being influenced by investigators. Their mission is to place themselves in the mind of the murderer. They are “profilers.”

Behavioral analysis, more commonly called profiling or criminal profiling, first emerged in the United States during the 1960s. For a long time, the practice was ignored in France, but a unit was finally opened in 2002. It is comprised of seven officers of the Police Judiciaire, the criminal investigation division of the French police system. There are four behavioral analysts — all women with degrees in both law and psychology — and three investigators.

The expert unit is unique in France and handles about 40 highly mysterious and heinous criminal cases every year. These are selected according to specific and graphic criteria: if, for example, objects have been inserted into a victim, if limbs are severed, if a murderer has marked a victim with insignia or other inscriptions, and if there are any clues to suggest a killer is a serial murderer.

The main difference between traditional investigators and behavioral analysts working a crime scene is the object of their quest. While investigators are looking for clues, prints or any object that could lead them to a suspect — like a dry cleaner’s receipt, for example — profilers instead try to detect expressions of a behavior and hints of a personal profile.

“We help investigators find the non-criminal behavior that matches the criminal expression,” explains Captain Marie-Laure Brunel-Dupin, 37, who founded and now heads the division. “We need to walk where the perpetrator walked to understand the crime scene’s dynamic. We remake the investigators’ observations, but from the criminal’s perspective. Traditional investigators naturally analyze behavior, but without a protocol. We bring a fresh point of view and new questions.”

What a cigarette butt belies

This is illustrated by the clues they gleaned from a single cigarette butt in a 2005 case. It was a Sunday afternoon. A man prowled around two little girls who were roller skating in a parking lot, a few yards from their homes. The man suddenly flung himself at one of the girls, aged 6, abducted her and drove off in his car. A witness later told the investigators he had seen the man smoke a cigarette just before he abducted the child. Investigators saw the cigarette butt as an opportunity to find prints and to make note of the brand he smoked.

“For us, it was a mine of psychological information,” explains the captain. “The way he smoked just before his senseless act told us about his stress level, and therefore about his experience.”

As a matter of fact, the perpetrator had barely started the cigarette before stubbing it out to fling himself at the girl. On top of that, witnesses had noticed him driving around the block one hour earlier. For the profilers, these clues were enough to sketch out the profile of an amateur: “He was roaming about. He must have been looking for a lonely child all day,” the captain remembers.

“Predators with no experience rarely act far from a place where they feel secure, usually their own home. When he saw these little girls, he knew it was his last chance, and he took risks,” the captain says. “His barely smoked cigarette shows he was stressed and had improvised. That might have been the first time he succeeded, but he certainly had made other attempts before. So instead of going through the files of known sexual offenders, it was best to look at local reports.”

Once they’ve made their observations in a given case, the analysts quickly return to their headquarters and enter all the gathered information on a spreadsheet they have set up with a psychiatrist. That way they are certain not to forget anything. “It’s about being as objective as possible and trying to avoid the temptation to use your intuition,” Brunel-Dupin says.

Their system analyzes the three stages of crime: before, during and after, and it enables analysts to quickly draw a broad outline of the perpetrator’s profile. The unit then sends it to the investigators within 24 to 48 hours. This helps investigators narrow down the number of leads and saves them precious time, as one 2008 case illustrates.

Looks can be deceiving

In eastern France, a woman was found dead, strangled in her attic, her head in a translucent plastic bag. There were two glasses of water in the living room. No traces of semen, and no signes of sexual assault. Only the first button of her jeans was undone. Investigators first thought that this happened as the victim was trying to struggle free and ruled out the possibility of the killing being sexually motivated. But behavior analysts sent to the scene quick surmised that it was indeed a case of interrupted sexual assault.

“The victim had died of strangulation and not of choking,” Brunel-Dupin explains. “Therefore, the plastic bag had been used merely to hide the victim’s face. Perpetrators are sometimes destabilized by their victim’s facial expression. As he was strangling the woman, her tongue came out. It had turned blue. According to our theory, this turned him off. He left her body after having started to unbutton her trousers. There hadn’t been a sexual assault per se, but we still had to look for a sexual predator.”

Contrary to the myth conveyed by American literature and television dramas, a single profiler has never solved a whole case by himself. In fact, none of the countries where this method is used have been able to accurately evaluate its relevance.

“Most of all, behavioral analysis is only one ingredient of an investigation, an assistance,” the head of the division insists. “Our work is merely to draw a psychological profile, not to identify a suspect.”

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