Geographic Profiling

If you’re a loyal fan of the television series Criminal Minds, you’ve probably witnessed several scenes of Dr. Spencer Reid methodically staring at maps, and within a brief amount of time working out patterns to track down the unsub. While this unparalleled speed is far from reality (as it has to conveniently fit inside a 60 minute episode, not to mention the average person doesn’t share the genius mind of Dr. Reid) there are in fact professionals specialized in geographic profiling.

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Dr. Kim Rossmo, University Endowed Chair in Criminology at Texas State University, is considered the pioneer of geographic profiling.

“Geographic profiling is an investigative methodology used in cases of serial crime, such as serial murder, rape, arson, bombings. It analyzes the location of crimes to determine where the offender responsible for them most likely lives,” says Dr. Rossmo (in an excerpt from the Zodiac documentary—Rossmo was hired by the film producers to employ his expertise in determining where the still uncaught “Zodiac Killer” potentially lived). Dr. Ross adds that geographic profiling does not solve crimes, but that it can help detectives employ crime-solving techniques more efficiently, such as helping locate suspects more quickly or narrowing down a long list of tips.

While pursuing his Bachelor’s in Sociology, his Master’s in Criminology and his PhD in Criminology, Dr. Rossmo was a detective inspector for the Vancouver Police Department. His PhD Thesis (titled “Geographic Profiling: Target Patterns of Serial Murderers”) that he completed in 1996 at Simon Fraser University, gave birth to the field of geographic profiling.

Dr. Rossmo was inspired by the work of professors Paul and Patricia Brantingham who had developed a theoretical model to determine where the next crimes of a serial offender were most likely to occur, based on where he or she lived, worked and spent of most of his or her time. For his research, Dr. Rossmo did the reverse of this, meaning he wanted to determine where a serial offender most likely lived based on the locations of his or her crimes.

The Texas State University’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation (GII) (where Dr. Rossmo is research professor) performs research, provides training to law enforcement agencies (as well as military and intelligence agencies), and also provides assistance to criminal investigations. When assisting with investigations, to put it simply, the geographic profilers input the locations of a (potential) serial offender’s crimes into a specialized software (such as Rigel) to create three-dimensional “jeopardy surfaces” (or two-dimensional “geographic profiles”) that demonstrate the probable geographic zone where that offender lives. However, the process is much more complex than plugging numbers into a program. The specialists at GII might meet with detectives, read case summaries and behavioral profiles, look at crime scene photos, visit the crime scenes (usually both during the day time and night time) and take note of details around the surrounding area and more!

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at other places where geographic profiling is practiced around the country and at potential training and career opportunities for both civilians and law enforcement officers.