Q&A

‘ERRORS IN OUR THINKING’

A leading crime profiler says police need to become better investigators

KIM ROSSMO August 4 2003
Q&A

‘ERRORS IN OUR THINKING’

A leading crime profiler says police need to become better investigators

KIM ROSSMO August 4 2003

‘ERRORS IN OUR THINKING’

A leading crime profiler says police need to become better investigators

Q&A

KIM ROSSMO

KIM ROSSMO was working his way toward a Ph.D. in criminology as he walked a beat in Vancouver. He climbed to the rank of detective-inspector, and became internationally known in 1995 when he developed geographic profiling, a complex investigative tool that attempts to find serial murderers and rapists by plotting their attacks on a map. Rossmo, who left the Vancouver police force in 2001, has worked on dozens of high-profile cases in a number of countries, including the Paul Bernardo schoolgirl murders in Ontario, the ongoing investigation into the suspected slaying of dozens of prostitutes at a Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farm and the Beltway Sniper case, in which two gunmen killed 10 people in a month-long crime spree near Washington in 2002. This fall, Rossmo, 48, will start working at Texas State University in San Marco, where he will do research into the geography of crime. He recently spoke with Associate Editor Amy Cameron.

You’re currently a management consultant at the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington. What are you doing there?

The ATF is the only U.S. federal law enforcement agency to implement geographic profiling for arson and bombing cases. I have about eight crime cases that we’ve been asked to work on. I’m also training one of their special agents, who will be world’s first female geographic profiler.

How did you develop the science of geographic profiling?

In the 1990s, professors Paul and Patricia Brantingham, at the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, were doing work in what’s called environmental criminology, which is the influence of the environment on where and when crimes happen. I ended up doing my master’s thesis on that. It was called “Fugitive Migration Patterns” and it examined the movements of criminals across the country. That led to the

groundwork for geographic profiling.

You used to walk a beat on Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside as a city cop. Did patrolling skid row help you develop geographic profiling?

There’s no better way to see spatial patterns than when you’re out of the car walking a beat. You’re in and out of the same bars, back doors and the alleys.

How does geographic profiling actually work?

First, it’s important to recognize that it’s an information management strategy, not X marks the spot. It takes the geometric pattem of crimes committed by the same person, for example, serial arsonists or rapists. It recognizes that there’s a mathematical probability between where someone commits a crime and where they live. Generally, they commit crimes close to home, but not too close. So I was able to determine a way to calculate that and marking the crime locations on a map. You end up with something that looks like a coloured topographic map or mountain surface. And then you can overlay the addresses of your suspects.

Give us an example.

In the late 1990s, there was a series of sexual assaults against teenage girls in Mississauga, Ont., and police had 312 suspects. On the profile map we did for them, the person who was ultimately convicted of the crime came up sixth on the list of suspects. What we’re saying is, if we can put them more toward the top of the list of suspects, police will be able to find them sooner, rather than later. But it doesn’t solve a crime. You need an eyewitness, a confession or physical evidence. A profile can’t do that—it’s only an information management technique.

What are some of the other investigations you’ve been involved with?

I’ve worked on cases in Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and of course North America. I just finished a project in London, called

Stranger Rates in Geodemographics, that analyzes crime locations to determine the most probable area of an offender’s residence. If you look at a map of Toronto, you could do overlays of census information on age, income, housing stock, average number of children per household and even buying patterns that reveal income levels and lifestyle. The British Home Office is planning to use this information to determine where rapists live. In 1997-98,1 was also involved in Operation Lynx, which was an investigation into a series of rapes. It was the largest manhunt in Britain since the Yorkshire Ripper. Then there was the Paul Bernardo case and the Beltway Sniper.

How many profilers are there?

There are two with the RCMP—one in Vancouver, one in Ottawa—one with the Ontario Provincial Police in Orillia, Ont., and three in England. I’m training a woman at the ATF and the Netherlands is currently training someone. The International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellowship was started by the FBI in the 1980s and about two years ago, all the geographic profilers joined it. So this provides training requirements, examination standards and ethical rules and allows us to communicate with each other. It’s a very interesting group.

I’ve heard about a rogue profiler operating in the U.S.

There is one individual who inserts himself into an investigation, then does a profile and shows it to the media. But if you’re showing it to the public you’re showing it to the offender. And in most cases you don’t want to tip the offender off, change his behaviour and undermine everything you’re trying to accomplish, because he’ll respond to that.

What concerns you now about the current state of policing in Canada?

As we become globalized, crime follows the movement of money and people. But you

actually only have a small percentage of research focusing on what makes a criminal investigation good and what are the tools that can help police, and what makes an investigation bad. For example, what have investigators really learned from the case of David Milgaard, who was falsely accused of a murder in Saskatoon in 1969? And now there is a very real risk that we won’t learn where things went wrong in the Port Coquitlam case.

Why has research into investigating crime not been given higher priority?

I think it’s because certain national objectives were set for police that focused on patrol, which has been called the backbone of the police department, and not investigations.

What can be done to improve the quality of police investigations?

If we take a look at the current state of criminology, psychology and criminal justice, I

think there’s an awful lot we can do to improve it. Besides profiling, I’m very interested in exploring other aspects of the criminal investigative process, particularly areas in decision-making and psychology. When investigating a crime, psychological “optical illusions” can occur and we can then make errors in our thinking. When those mistakes apply to things like a murder investigation, or have a security aspect, they can often be incredibly dangerous. Iffl