A brutal murder. An overwhelmed and understaffed police force. A vicious killer that no one can pinpoint. No one, that is, until the investigative psychologist comes on board. Then with a perusal of the case files, she points out a seemingly innocuous piece of evidence, one that nobody had paid much attention to and suddenly the case is solved. Of course it was the boyfriend.
Flip the channels on television any night of the week and you will find some version of this scenario playing out. But is it realistic?
Art does imitate life in some ways. Just like in television, the role of the profiler has received far more attention in the past two decades. In real life, however, the field of investigative psychology has tended more towards research and less towards field work and “saving the day.”
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with C. Gabrielle Salfati, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Investigative Psychology Research Unit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The unit trains students, researchers and professionals in crime scene analysis and conducts numerous research projects in the field.
Salfati was one of the first psychologists to become involved in working with investigative psychology. She was among the founders of the International Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool in the UK where she was also the course director for the Master’s degree program in forensic behavioral science and the deputy course director for the Master’s program in investigative psychology. Salfati talked about the field, its advances and the reality of a career spent hunting for criminals…or at least for the tools to capture them.
Q: We know what we see on TV isn’t always accurate. Can you tell us what an investigative psychologist is?
A: Essentially, investigative psychology was created in the late 80s and early 90s in response to questions regarding the reliability of offender profiling. There were a lot of people making comments about criminal behavior but a lot of this expertise was based on experience and not being backed up by empirically tested methodology. Investigative psychology grew out of the need to apply psychological knowledge and rigorous testing to criminal investigations.
It’s a small field that has only been around for about 20 years, not a long time in terms of science. Some people end up working as criminal analysts for the police. But, in terms of profiling, that is not really a “job,” per se. Most psychologists in the field are part of a growing body of people doing research.
The field has been strong on developing methodology and how to establish benchmarks. We have quite a large ethical responsibility to get it right when this is being used on criminal investigations.
Q: Any interesting findings in the research?
A: One key thing has been trying to understand what is myth developed from day-to-day beliefs and what is actually science. What we are using right now, the knowledge we have, is that true or not? For example, serial homicide offenders do not always target one type of person and they are not necessarily consistent. There are many different types and many patterns. It is really important that we know that these things are not just hearsay.
Q: This helps police catch the criminals?
A: The trick is relating what the offenders do at crime scenes to who they are. Understanding how they act is one thing but, because we are dealing with police investigations, we have to relate it back to the person, to give them a probability of the type of person they are looking for. That’s been challenging, but there is a link between the types of crimes people commit and the types of person they are.
Early on, people focused on motivation, their internal thoughts, patterns and pathologies. But, we are hardly able to do this with people we know, forget about the ones we don’t. We moved the focus to objective things like behaviors. We need to look at behaviors to give us indicators that give us ideas of who the offender is.
We use individual differentiation. We are pulling on many years of psychological research that has never been applied in a criminal context, to build the link between the two. At end of the day, people are still influenced by what any person would be influenced by.
Q: Do you work in the field as well?
A: I work with big agencies as well as international police authorities in terms of investigators and crime analysts to make them aware of things they can add to the tools of the investigation.
It’s not like on TV where the profiler tells police what to do and then works alongside them. Profiling and investigative psychology is a tool that comes alongside other forensic tools police use to gather information to understand patterns to go on and try to prioritize their suspects.
Q: TV makes more people interested in studying forensics and profiling. How do they handle the sheer brutality of it?
A: People have a fascination with crime. I think it’s good to understand the processes and try to be part of making things better, to try to understand the clinical issues.
It is more disturbing when people are fascinated to a level where it is unhealthy, fascinated by the nitty gritty of it all.
In terms of students, when they come in contact with real cases, I make a point to tell them they will be affected with those secondary signs of stress that affect doctors, nurses. It is important to understand that we are dealing with real issues. Sometimes it comes as a surprise that these are real people and some gruesome things have happened to them. As professionals, we have to train people to be able to step back and look at it in scientific terms, like surgeons and to be able to professionalize it.
Q: Is there a sense of satisfaction to solving crimes?
A: When I was first doing this, I was working directly on cases. It became clear that, although we may have gotten it right in those cases, (and some we never knew because they weren’t solved) there was always the possibility we could get it wrong because we didn’t have much of a field to base our analysis on. That’s why I made the decision to focus on establishing a basis to understand these crimes and to build up a mass of information. I really took a step back to concentrate more on research and then on training investigators and crime analysts. I am not an investigator.
I am not trained to be an investigator. So I have found that it is so much more useful if I can bring my skills to a larger audience. I try to use my influence to get this integrated into investigator training so they can have the impact and benefit of all this research we are doing and the years of research done by the field of psychology.
So by proxy, I am helping to solve these crimes. All of these things are tools. We are only a piece of the puzzle.
Q: What do you think is important that people know about your work?
A: The biggest message is that we can make a tremendous impact by applying our vigorous training to something that can have real impact in the investigative arena. The more stringently we can look at things, the more we are going to make things advance. I don’t think that’s the message we are going to get from television although I do have to say that statistics and science are starting to get a bit more sexy on TV.
By Catherine Robertson Souter