Criminal Minds, a fictional crime thriller television show that first aired in 2005, follows agents at the Behavioral Analysis Unit as they work against the clock to solve America’s most high-profile and twisted crimes. In each episode, the team conducts on-site field research (such as speaking to witnesses, consulting anyone with connections to the UNSUB’s (“unsuspected subject”), and collecting samples from the crime scene) and the episode ultimately ends with a teeth-wrenching standoff between the FBI and the UNSUB. While I know that the show is highly dramatized, I have always dreamed of working as a detective or an FBI agent in the BAU. My friends, too, have also considered pursuing criminal psychology after falling in love with Criminal Minds. Over the course of 14 seasons, the program has accumulated 22 awards (such as the ASCAP Film & Television Music Award and People’s Choice Award) and 32 nominations. I can guarantee that others, like my friends and myself, were also inspired to study criminal psychology after watching the show. However, I have always wondered… is Criminal Minds portraying an accurate representation of the real Behavioral Analysis Unit, and furthermore, criminal psychology?
Criminal psychology examines the mind of a criminal– their motivations, thoughts, and feelings. In action, criminal psychologists assist police in investigations by conducting psychiatric assessments of the suspects, as well as providing guidance on how the detectives, attorneys, and police should proceed.
Profiling is also integral to criminal psychology. By detecting patterns in behavior, criminal psychologists have compiled a variety of “types”–or profiles– of serial offenders. Specifically, psychologists can draw conclusions by examining the criminal’s victimology (trends in victims, such as gender and age); for murders, the manner in which the bodies were disposed of; the suspect’s plan before the crime; and “post-offense behavior” (criminal’s potential involvement in investigation, reaction to media coverage, etc.). Introduced in the 1960s, this method of data analysis has proven to tremendously expedite the investigation process. Profiling is most notably used by the FBI at the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia. In Criminal Minds, the BAU uses crime scene photos, forensic evidence, and the UNSUB’s M.O. (manner in which they commit the crime) to generate a profile.
What the Show Gets Right
In general, the series realistically depicts the profiles of the perpetrators. For example, in a two-part episode special, called “Our Darkest Hour” and “The Longest Night,” the team investigates a series of rape and murder cases taking place during Los Angeles’ rolling blackout season. According to the show’s writers, Billy Flynn–the UNSUB and later identified criminal– was inspired by real-life serial rapist and killer, Richard Ramirez (aka The Night Stalker). While differing in racial background and age, both offenders were described as:
- Committed home burglaries when younger and later used home invasions as part of his M.O. during his rapes and killings
- Began killing in Los Angeles of 1984
- Only commits crimes at night
- Uneducated or has limited education
- Has poor hygiene
- Sadistic and opportunistic
- Most likely had a traumatic past and cannot sustain relationships. Lives alone.
By using existing cases as a foundation for developing on-screen criminals, Criminal Minds–generally speaking– creates an accurate portrayal of the real-life perpetrators who have and continue to terrorize the nation. Additionally, the show hires actors who are able to successfully capture their UNSUB’s profile–their mannerisms, quirks, and triggers. Furthermore, the show seems to accurately portray how the BAU would approach each case– with the suspect’s profile in mind. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that Criminal Minds represents the “extremes” of criminal cases. Most likely, there are other cases that the real-life FBI investigates, but that the show omits for the sake of a potential “lack” of drama.
Unfortunately, Criminal Minds does not truly convey the lives of the BAU’s criminal psychologists in the “real world.” As expected, the show is heavily exaggerated. For example– while the show seems to catch the criminal within a matter of days (sometimes hours), criminal psychologist typically investigate cases for weeks and months at a time. Additionally, the majority of their work is desk-bound, whereas the agents in Criminal Minds are highly active outside of the office. This makes sense. It would be relatively boring watching 45-minutes worth of desk work and private meetings.
What disappointed me the most, however, is the fact that criminal psychologists never interact with the suspect–with the exception of providing psychiatric assessments. I have always found the final standoff between the BAU agents and the suspect to be the most compelling, emotionally-wrenching aspect of the show. Too bad it doesn’t happen in real life.
Even though the show is highly dramatized, I still love it. That being said, it is important to understand that the media’s portrayal of reality is rarely 100% accurate.
What do you think?
Have you seen Criminal Minds? If so, do you think that the show should be more accurate to criminal psychology and the work of the Behavioral Analysis Unit?
Craig, Mary. “Criminal Minds: Behavioral Profiling: Fact or Fiction?” HubPages, HubPages, 22 Feb. 2015, hubpages.com/education/Criminal-Minds-Behavioral-Profiling-Fact-or-Fiction.
Edited by Viveca Shearin