The FBI building in Langley Virginia. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most popular crime drama on television is Criminal Minds. The show tells the story of several agents at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) who focus on criminal profiling. The show might be fictional, but did you know that the BAU really exists? Read on to discover how the use of psychology has proven to be valuable in solving crimes.

The earliest behavioral analyses

In the 1960s, Howard Teten of the FBI developed a hypothesis that it was possible to determine the kind of person the authorities were looking for based on what could be seen at the crime scene. To test his theory and further develop his approach, Teten reviewed unusual homicides from several police agencies, examined all the data and evidence, and prepared a profile of the perpetrator. Once an arrest was made, he would look at the perpetrator and check the accuracy of his description.

In 1970, Teten provided his first profile in a case involving the stabbing murder of a woman in her home. Based on the circumstances and documents, Teten shared that the crime was probably committed by an adolescent who lived close to the victim and that the perpetrator would immediately confess once confronted because of deep feelings of guilt and shame. Teten suggested that the boy would be found by knocking on doors in the neighborhood. He was right.

Teten and Patrick Mullany, an expert in abnormal psychology, soon initiated a criminal psychology program at the FBI Academy wherein officers were taught behavioral analysis as one of many investigative tools. In 1972, the Behavioral Science Unit was formed. Teten and Mullany were eventually approached to assist in a stalled investigation regarding the kidnapping of 7-year-old Susan Jaeger during a family camping trip in Montana in June 1973.

The case was stalled for over 10 months due to lack of physical evidence. Once Teten and Mullany were brought to examine the case, they were able to identify the personality of the kidnapper. Through the help of an anonymous caller, investigators questioned 23-year-old Vietnam veteran David Meirhofer. Despite passing the polygraph, Teten and Mullany were convinced that Meirhofer was a cold-hearted psychopath who’s good at lying. When Meirhofer committed suicide, he admitted to the murder of four individuals, including Susan.

Their success in profiling the Meirhofer eventually earned the trust of those who doubted their criminal profiling approach, and criminal profiling is used in most major FBI cases today.