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'Criminal Signatures'

Figure 2.4.6 A hierarchy for the differentiation of offenders

At a much more specific level there are questions about particular subsets of activities that occur in a crime, say whether a particular type of weapon was used (Lobato, 2000). Between the general questions and the particular is a continuum of variations that can be examined. This would include questions about different subsets of crimes, such as the comparison of violent offenders and burglars (Farrington and Lambert, 1994); or at a slightly more specific level, questions about particular patterns of criminal behaviour, such as the comparison of offenders who prepare carefully in advance of a crime with those whose actions are impulsive and opportunistic.

Conceptually these different levels in the hierarchy of criminal actions can be represented as in Figure 2.4.6. It seems unlikely, however, that the empirical distinctions in offenders' behaviour patterns will map on to this hierarchical model. It implies that the variations at each level are simply subsets of the variations at a higher level. But, for example, the differences between an offender who came prepared to carry out his or her crime and one who just grabbed what was available may be more valid than differences in, say, whether it was a robbery or a burglary. In effect, this makes the description of crimes multidimensional. The notional hierarchy is better regarded then as an interrelated set of dimensions for describing crimes.

Such a complex structure is extremely difficult to examine in total. Researchers have therefore usually focused on one or other of the 'levels' of this hierarchy. For example, there are many studies examining the differences between offenders and non-offenders. There are fewer comparing the differences between those convicted of one crime and those convicted of another, and very few considering the differences between people who carry out similar crimes (e.g. rape) in different ways. The results of all these studies have relevance for 'profiling' although studies that aim to contribute to 'profiling' tends to focus on the behavioural level. So far, no studies have been conducted to determine if the value and validity of inferences made on other facets are greater or less than those based on patterns of behaviour.

The focus on patterns of behaviour in popular, anecdotal, crime publications as well as in the limited research literature is in part due to the many complications and unanswered questions within these multivariate issues. Some relate to the versatility of offenders. These raise questions of just what may be regarded as typical or characteristic of an offender. Other difficulties relate to the problem of defining the subgroup to which an offence should be assigned. Consider, as an illustration, a crime in which a house was burgled and at the same time a fire was set, giving rise to the death of an occupant. Would this crime be best thought of as burglary, arson or murder? The charge made against the accused is usually for the most serious crime, but psychologically that may not be the most significant aspect of the offender's actions.

One central research question, then, is to identify the behaviourally important facets of offences; those facets that are of most use in revealing the salient psychological processes inherent in the offence. These carry great potential for answering questions posed by investigators.

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