Behavioral Analysis Unit

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Behavioral science is all about better understanding criminals and terrorists—who they are, how they think, why they do what they do—as a means to help solve crimes and prevent attacks. The art of what is sometimes called “profiling”—popularized in movies like Silence of the Lambs—was developed by FBI behavioral analysts and has been around for years. The Bureau began to more systematically apply the insights of psychological science to criminal behavior in the early 1970s. In 1974 The Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) was created to investigate serial rape and homicide cases. There were originally eleven agents and it was a part of the Training Division. By 1984 they split into the Behavioral Science Unit and the Behavioral Science Investigative Support Unit. The Behavioral Science Unit became primarily responsible for the training of FBI National Academy students in the variety of specialized topics concerning the behavior and social sciences, and the Behavioral Science Investigative Support Unit became primarily responsible for the investigation of criminals. A decade later, The Critical Incident Response Group integrated the FBI’s crisis management, behavioral, and tactical resources within one entity. The name changed again to the Investigative Support Unit and by 1997 the program evolved into the Behavioral Analysis Unit.

Behaviorism was largely established through the influential work of three theorists: Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Pavlov discovered the conditioning reflex during his studies with dogs, establishing classical conditioning as a learning method. His research demonstrated that an environmental stimulus (i.e. ringing bell) could be used to stimulate a conditioned response (i.e. salivating at the sound of the ringing bell). John B. Watson extended Pavlov's theory to apply to human behavior, publishing his landmark article Psychology as the Behaviorist View It in 1913 and establishing behaviorism as a major school of thought. B.F. Skinner later introduced the concept of operant conditioning in which reinforcement leads to a desired behavior. These concepts continue to play influential roles in behavior analysis, behavior modification, and psychotherapy. Behaviorism was once a very prominent school of thought within psychology, although its dominance began to decline during the 1950s as psychologists became more interested in humanistic and cognitive approaches. However, behavioral techniques are still widely used today in psychotherapy, counseling, education, parenting and criminal profiling.

In the mid twentieth century, some mental health professionals made a study of murderers and in their published works; the motives and backgrounds were often clarified. Psychiatrist Karl Berg questioned German serial killer Peter Kürten in prison in 1930 after he was charged with numerous counts of assault and murder. James Melvin Reinhardt, a psychiatrist and professor, published his interviews with spree killer Charles Starkweather in 1960. These reports were not behavioral profiles but attempts to understand the crimes. Yet the detailed analyses done contributed some structure and ideas to the development of profiling.

As murder rates rose in the 1950s and 1960s, along with an increasingly larger percentage of them being stranger murders, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, received expanded jurisdiction. The area of serial crime (called pattern or repetitive crime) needed immediate attention. Notorious killers such as Ed Gein, Albert DeSalvo, Charles Schmid, John Norman Collins, and Harvey Glatman had been caught by 1970 and all were either convicted of, or suspected in, numerous murders. DeNevi and Campbell quote figures that indicate that there had been five known serial killers during the period from 1795 to 1850 [a low estimate], the next 50 years brought 20, another half century increased that to 33, and finally between 1951 and 1993 there were nearly 400 [probably a high...
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