Profiling Arson Research Paper

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Criminal psychological profiling is the forensic technique of inferring personal, psychological, demographic, and behavioral characteristics of offenders based on crime scene evidence. While the majority of research concerning criminal profiling has been focused on the investigation of crimes of sexual violence such as murder and rape, criminal psychological profiling is frequently described as being applicable to the investigation of serial arson crimes, and the frequency with which psychological profiling has been used in the investigation of arson crimes has been growing steadily over the past 30 years (Drabsch 2004; Kocsis 2004, 2006; Turvey 1999). This current entry reviews the growing body of literature in relation to arson profiling, especially focusing on approaches that have published a specific methodology that applies to arson, as opposed to approaches that have a generalized methodology that is not necessarily differentiated for arson.

Investigating Arson

The increased interest in the application of profiling techniques to assist arson investigation may be due, in part, to the difficulty associated with the detection and prosecution of arson offenses; in the 2003 Uniform Crime Report, the United States Department of Justice states that arson has one of the lowest clearance rates of any major crime (FBI 2003). Within the United States only 18.2 % of known arson incidents were cleared by arrest in 2010 (FBI 2011), which is comparable to other developed nations including Canada (16.4 %; Statistics Canada 2011) and New Zealand (19.6 %; Statistics New Zealand 2011). The ability, then, to classify arson offenders into discrete offender profiles is innately appealing to authorities tasked with the responsibility of investigating and apprehending arson offenders, allowing fire investigators to narrow down a suspect pool according to assumed characteristics of an offender.

Approaches To Profiling

Historically, the classification of arsonists has often been arbitrary, with categories based on simple characteristics of a fire-setting group (e.g., children) or on the basis of psychological diagnoses (Lewis and Yarnell 1951) or apparent motive (Bradford 1982; Icove and Estepp 1987). It was only in the 1990s that, following the methods and procedures utilized by the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the United States FBI, a typology-based profiling system of fire-setting behavior was proposed that purported to profile offenders based on a relationship between crime scene features and various personal characteristics of the offender (Douglas et al. 1992). While the approach described by the BSU was (and remains) the most commonly used profiling framework employed by police and firefighters to classify arson offenders by investigators around the world (Stauss 1998), it has been criticized by some researchers as lacking theoretical grounding (Canter and Heritage 1990). To address this perceived gap, Canter and Fritzon (1998) attempted to apply a more rigorously scientific approach to the profiling of arson offenders, identifying statistically significant relationships between crime scene behaviors and offender personal characteristics across four main behavioral themes. Kocsis and Cooksey (2002), utilizing a procedure similar to the method employed by Canter and Fritzon, also identified significant relationships between crime scene behaviors and offender characteristics among serial arson offenders only, yielding four additional behavioral themes.

While many classification systems have been described in the literature to typify arson offenders, these three classification systems remain the only widely disseminated frameworks that purport to profile arson offenders by inferring personal and psychological characteristics based on crime scene evidence. While the three frameworks canvassed within this research paper have a great deal of similarity, it is important to point out that differences between these classification systems may represent differences inherent in the theoretical background and methodology employed by the authors of each framework and may not reflect strengths or weaknesses when compared to each other. In spite of the research described, there remains a surprising dearth of empirical studies on the topic of profiling arson offenders or arson crimes from criminal investigations, and there has been little progress toward a definitive method of profiling arson. Further research is needed to validate a comprehensive classification framework that can adequately represent the range and depth of arsonist behavior and characteristics.

Motivation-Based Profiling

While criminal profiling efforts have been described in the available literature as occurring during World War II and through the 1950s, psychological profiling was only added as an adjunct to the normal instructional programs of the Behavioral Science Unit at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States in 1980 (Depue 1986). In 1981, the BSU developed the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, a system to collect, organize, analyze, and disseminate information about violent crimes, which was incorporated with the BSU in 1984, forming the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) within the FBI (Depue). While the principal aim of the NCAVC was the profiling of sexual and violent offenders, the methodologies employed by this program were subsequently applied to the criminal profiling of arson offenses. The NCAVC is presently responsible for the largest body of research examining arson for the purpose of criminal psychological profiling; the profiling methodologies employed by the ATF and FBI in the United States and a number of law enforcement agencies abroad are advised by research produced by the NCAVC (Douglas et al. 1992; Rossmo 2000).

The central theme of the research produced by the NCAVC was the development of discrete offender typologies based on motive categories. According to the NCAVC, recognizing the motivation of an offender can allow an investigator to recognize personal traits and characteristics of an offender; these characteristics can form the basis of discrete offender profiles which can be used to help identify arson offenders or rule out nonoffenders (Douglas and Olshaker 1999; Douglas et al. 1986). This research culminated in the description of six motive classifications that appeared to be most effective in identifying offender characteristics: vandalism, excitement, revenge, crime concealment, profit, and extremist. These six categories are detailed in the NCAVC’s Crime Classification Manual (Douglas et al. 1992).

Vandalism-motivated arson arises from a malicious and mischievous desire to cause destruction or damage. According to Douglas et al. (1992), the typical crime scene of a vandalism-motivated arsonist will reflect the spontaneous nature of the offense. This can include evidence of poor planning (e.g., leaving evidence at the scene, such as footprints and fingerprints) and the use of direct, handheld ignition to materials available at the scene. Sapp et al. (1995) note that targets of vandalism-motivated arsonists tend to be educational facilities; however, targets tend to be those of opportunity and can include other residential properties and vegetation, which will generally fall within a small geographical area which will be known to the offender. Among fires set in secured structures, offenders will frequently gain access via windows, and evidence will often show mechanical breaking of glass. Other signs suggesting vandalism can include graffiti left at the scene, general destruction of property, and/or property missing from the scene. Time of offending generally occurs in the hours after school or work and on weekends.

Douglas et al. (1992) describe the typical offender as a juvenile male with 7–9 years of formal education. The typical offender will have a record of poor academic performance and vocational history and is likely to be known by police and have an arrest record. It is also likely that the offender will be known to school authorities as being disruptive and have problems with authority. Compared to other motivations, vandalism arson frequently involves multiple offenders although, if the fire is set by a group, one personality tends to be the leader or instigator of the group.

Excitement-motivated arson deals with fires set to resolve a need for psychological excitement that is satisfied by fire setting and can include crimes committed for histrionic/heroic needs, to satisfy sexual feelings, to satisfy a need for stimulation, or as a result of psychotic delusion. A defining feature of this category is that the offender rarely intends the fire to harm people; this is frequently reflected in the type of property reflected (e.g., grass, brush, woodland, deserted construction sites, or vacant residential properties). As this category of fire setting is motivated by excitement, offenders frequently select a location that offers a good vantage point and will frequently interject themselves into the response or investigation of the fire.

Excitement-motivated fires are frequently set on properties adjacent to areas that are known to be frequently occupied. Fires are usually set using materials on hand and, among older offenders, accelerants are frequently used. Douglas et al. (1992) note that a small number of excitement fires are motivated by sexual perversion; finding ejaculate, fecal deposits, and/or pornographic material can help identify the motivation of the fire setter.

Douglas et al. (1992) describe the typical excitement arsonist as a juvenile or young adult male with 10 or more years of formal education. The typical offender within this category is described as socially inadequate, which may contribute to their inability to attain psychological excitement via pro-social means. Serial arson offenders frequently belong to this motivational category as, frequently, the psychological needs met through the fire setting are recurring (Sapp et al. 1994). A history of police contact for nuisance offenses is prevalent, with older offenders typically having a longer record. Excitement arsonists tend to remain at the scene, although those who leave frequently return to observe the results of their fire.

Revenge-motivated arson refers to those arson offenses that are set in retaliation for any real or imagined injustice, perceived by the offender. While this type of arson can span both well-planned, one-time events or serial events, this type of arson, unlike others, is always committed in response to a real or imagined stressor. Consequently, when this motive is suspected, a detailed and accurate analysis of the relationship between the victim and the offender is crucial (Sapp et al. 1995). Douglas et al. (1992) point out that the person or property victimized by a revenge arsonist will generally have a history of interpersonal or professional conflict with the offender. The NCAVC recommends that this motive be immediately considered when a low-risk individual or target suffers arson, particularly when the arson does not appear to be part of a series.

The Crime Classification Manual lists several subtypes of revenge arson that further identify the motivation of the offender: personal retaliation, societal retaliation, institutional retaliation, group retaliation, and others. The targeted property often varies with the subtype of revenge arsonist; an arsonist from the personal retaliation subcategory, for example, is more likely to burn items of significance to their victim such as clothing, bedding, or personal effects (Douglas et al. 1992). Arsonists seeking revenge against society, however, may exhibit displaced aggression by choosing targets at random, while other offenders may retaliate against institutions such as churches, government facilities, and universities. Compared to other categories, revenge arson attacks are more likely to use accelerant and, when accelerant is used, are more likely to use excessive amounts. According to some research (e.g., Sapp et al. 1994), revenge arsonists are the most prevalent among serial arsonists (Sapp et al. 1994).

Revenge arsonists are typically adult males with 10 or more years of formal education. If employed, they typically hold blue-collar jobs and are of lower socioeconomic status. Douglas et al. (1992) describe a revenge arsonist as having close relationships, but state that these relationships tend to be unstable or short term. A revenge arsonist will often have prior law enforcement contact for property offenses such as burglary, theft, or vandalism. Alcohol use is common prior to committing this offense. The Crime Classification Manual specifies that the revenge arsonist typically acts alone and seldom returns to the crime scene, instead preferring to establish an alibi. Importantly, the offender will frequently express a short-lived sense of relief and satisfaction following the fire.

Crime concealment arsons are arson offenses committed as a secondary criminal activity to conceal a primary criminal activity. The targeted property for this offense can vary depending on the nature of the concealment. While it is tempting to assume that an arson committed for the purpose of crime concealment can demonstrate prior planning or premeditation, fire is notoriously efficient at memorializing evidence and inefficient at destroying biological evidence such as flesh and bone. Consequently, this type of fire is rarely of the organizational or sophistication level of the primary crime and is often set during periods of great stress and emotion which can interfere with an individual’s ability to calmly think through their actions.

Liquid accelerant is commonly used when committing crime concealment arson, and the fire is usually set on or at the site of the primary crime. An investigator should expect to find more physical evidence, and a fire set in a more disorganized fashion, than with other arsons; this can lead to an increased risk of incorrectly assuming more than one offender, particularly if the disorganized fire follows an apparently organized burglary or homicide (Douglas et al. 1992).

The Crime Classification Manual states that crime concealment offenders tend to be young adults who live within the surrounding community and tend to be highly mobile. Alcohol and recreational drug use are common among this type of arsonist, as is a lengthy criminal history, frequently spanning a wide range of offenses.

An arsonist who uses a fire to conceal burglary or auto theft is frequently accompanied by coconspirators and virtually always leaves the scene immediately and does not return. Generally this type of arson is seen as a one-time event and does not involve serial arson, although Sapp et al. (1994) found that crime concealment accounted for 5 % of the motives reported by serial arsonists.

Profit-motivated arson refers to any arson set for the explicit purpose of achieving material or financial gain. While other motivations of arson are differentiated in that they represent an expression of a psychological need, profit-motivated arson is unique in that it is committed for financial reasons. Consequently, Douglas et al. (1992) point out that, among the motivations for arson, profit-motivated arsonists exhibit the least amount of passion for their crime. This typology describes individuals who set fires to commit fraud (e.g., to collect insurance, to conceal loss, or to liquidate inventory) as well as individuals who set fires for hire (to commit fraud for a third party).

Because the destruction of property is the goal of profit-motivated arson and because this motivation is considered the least passionate, the crime scenes of a profit-motivated arson tend to demonstrate a more organized style, containing less physical evidence and more sophisticated incendiary devices. Crime scenes typically evidence an excessive use of accelerant, and multiple seats are evident. Items of value are often removed, or substituted with items of lower quality. The Crime Classification Manual suggests that fire investigators count the clothes hangers in the closets of burned residences to determine whether items have been removed beforehand.

As with revenge-motivated arson, establishing the victimology is critical in identifying this motive. Examining who is benefiting from the commission of the crime in an apparently motiveless arson could help contribute to an offender profile, and the Crime Classification Manual suggests that an offender’s pre-offense conversations may provide indications of premeditation, such as warning co-workers not to attend work that day or a sudden change in an insurance policy. Icove and Estepp (1987) report that profit-motivated arson is less suitable to traditional profiling assistance, as no psychological needs are being met or are driving this behavior. Nevertheless, Douglas et al. (1992) suggest that the typical offender in this category is an adult male with 10 or more years of formal education. This offender likely has no police records, although if the fire is set by a “torch for hire,” the primary offender will likely have a prior arrest record which may include a previous arson (demonstrating experience in committing this sort of crime). Offenders typically live more than one mile from the crime scene and are frequently accompanied to the crime scene by coconspirators; most leave the scene and do not return.

Extremist-motivated arsons are committed to further a sociopolitical cause. This includes arsons set for reasons of terrorism or civil disturbance and represents a very narrow range of arson offenses committed. Although few studies to date have found a significant population of arsonists for whom extremism represents a motivation, current NCAVC research suggests that extremist motivated arson is on the increase, particularly following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

According to the Crime Classification Manual, analysis of the targeted property is essential in the determination of this motivation category (Douglas et al. 1992). In order to qualify as an extremist-motivated arson incident, the target must represent the antithesis of the offender’s beliefs. Examples include research laboratories and fur stores targeted by animal rights groups, abortion clinics targeted by extremist anti-choice groups, or businesses targeted by unions. As with profit-motivated arson, the crime scene typically reflects an organized and sophisticated attack with offenders frequently employing incendiary devices and accelerants, leaving little forensic information. While profit-motivated arson is clandestine, however, extremist arson is frequently committed to deliver a symbolic message and will often be accompanied by some form of message left at the scene or via a communique delivered to the media or local authorities claiming responsibility.

Extremist-motivated arson is difficult to profile due, in part, to the rarity of the crime in comparison to other arson offenders. Extremist arsonists are often more sophisticated offenders and will typically be well educated, literate, and politically active or aware. Of particular relevance to an arson investigator, the extremist offender is frequently readily identified with a cause or group, and interviews with the friends and family of a suspected arsonist may identify membership into a group. Offenders may have previous police contact for civil disobedience, trespassing, criminal mischief, or civil rights violations (Douglas et al. 1992).

A central premise of the profiling research described by the NCAVC is that inferences concerning an offender’s motivation can be made from crime scene evidence and that a psychological profile can then be constructed from this motivation (Douglas and Burgess 1986; Douglas and Olshaker 1999). While this assumption has remained implicit within the profiling literature produced by the NCAVC, there is little empirical evidence suggesting that offender motivation can be successfully inferred from crime scene behaviors or that a psychological profile of an offender can be generated from an offender’s motivations (Kocsis 2006). Additionally, while the motivational categories (and associated profiles) of arsonists are presented by Douglas et al. (1992) as representing discrete offender profiles, research investigating the clinical utility of these motivational categories suggests that arsonist motivations are frequently multidimensional. In a review of the motivations of 212 convicted serial arsonists, Sapp et al. (1994) found that 12 % of offenders reported multiple motivations spanning two or more motivational categories described by the NCAVC, and similar research has suggested that individual motivations for fire setting tend to be complex and multifaceted: in one landmark study, Lewis and Yarnell (1951) reported that elements of revenge were present in some form in nearly all cases of arson! While the motivations of an offender carrying out a crime would certainly be of interest to an investigator attempting to develop a profile, in light of the multidimensional nature of offender motivations, the number of inferences that can be drawn from this information may be limited.

The Action Systems Approach To Arson Profiling

According to Canter and Heritage (1990), the basic tenet of profiling is that offenders differ in the behaviors they exhibit when committing a crime and that there are associations between offender characteristics and the thematic focus of their crime. Within this framework, criminal profiling is developed solely on the classification of offense behaviors independent from any inferred motivations. Implicit within this framework is the assumption that offenders will show consistency between the nature of their crimes and other characteristics they exhibit in other situations. This is referred to by Canter (e.g., Canter and Youngs 2009) as the A-C equation and is a central tenet of the Investigative Psychology approach to offender profiling. While a single criminal action may be insufficient to make inferences concerning an offender characteristic, a group of actions together may represent a strong predictor of an offender’s style.

Using a multivariate statistical methodology, Salfati and Canter (1999) examined the crime scene actions of a sample of 82 homicide offenders who victimized strangers and compared them to known characteristics of those offenders and found that those offenders who made an effort to conceal their crime (e.g., by hiding or transporting the body or theft of nonidentifiable property) were more likely to have a previous custodial sentence. Profiling studies utilizing this model thus seek to thematically link crime scene actions to offender characteristics, to develop criminal profiles of offenders.

Canter and Fritzon (1998) explored the crime scene behaviors from 175 solved cases of arson in the United Kingdom for evidence of behavioral themes indicative of discrete offender profiles. Using a combination of multidimensional Scaling and content and thematic analysis, four behavioral themes emerged, and these were interpreted according to Shye’s (1985) Action System Model of Functioning. The four themes were correlated with background characteristics of the known offenders. Using this method, four profiles were identified, which varied according to the apparent motive of the fire setting (instrumental or expressive) and the target of the fire setting (object or person). Thus, the four profiles described by Canter and Fritzon were termed instrumental-object (arson committed in order to satisfy general criminal goals), instrumental-person (arson committed in order to extract revenge against another person), expressive-object (arson committed to provide emotional comfort or satisfaction), and expressive-person (arson committed to attract attention).

Instrumental-object arson is described by Canter and Fritzon (1998) as any arson set as an “attempt to change aspects of the object where the change will be of direct benefit to the fire setter.” Fires set to conceal other crimes would fall under this category; examples include a burglar setting fire to a residence to hide forensic evidence or a business owner setting fire to company records to hide corporate malfeasance. Aspects of this type of arson have a great deal in common with the crime concealment motivational category described by Douglas et al. (1992) as well as the arson-for-profit classification described by Barnett (1992) and Vreeland and Lewin (1980). These arsons are seen as opportunistic, in that the decision to commit the crime may only be arrived at when the individual recognizes the environmental possibilities. The offense is viewed as merely fulfilling general criminal goals or satiating a need to commit damage or vandalism and thus has little personal meaning to the offender.

This arson profile is associated with arson that is set by multiple offenders. It frequently occurs on uninhabited properties and co-occurs with other property crimes such as theft or vandalism. As the goal of the arson tends to be property motivated (as in the destruction of property for gain is the explicit goal), it is rarely associated with fires set in a manner where death or injury is likely to occur. Spree arsonists (i.e., those who set fire at three or more separate locations with no emotional cooling-off period between them) are associated with this profile.

Instrumental-person arson is described as arson that occurs “as a reaction to frustration by another person which the fire setter wishes to hurt or remove” (Canter and Fritzon 1998). This type of arson generally emerges as a consequence of a dispute between the offender and another person, and, as a result, a specific triggering event can usually be identified by the offender. In this case, fire serves as a method with which the offender can retaliate, in order to address feelings of injustice on the part of the offender. Consequently, this type of arson is frequently committed against items of symbolic significance to the victim such as important property, heirlooms, or photographs.

Unsurprisingly, this arson profile is associated with arson that occurs following an argument and following threats of arson. As this arson occurs in response to an argument or conflict, the victim is usually known to the offender and is frequently a close friend or romantic partner. Vehicular arson is associated with this arson profile as is evidence of planning including the use of accelerants.

The third profile of arson described by Canter and Fritzon (1998) is termed expressive-object and refers to arson which involves “the demonstration of aspects of the arsonist on the external world.” Canter and Fritzon draw a comparison between this category and Geller’s (1992) description of fire setting as a means of emotional acting out and suggest that fire setters within this profile will choose targets with symbolic, emotional significance. This type of fire is more likely to proceed in a serial manner, suggesting an inherent fascination with fire or the trappings of fire. This hypothesis is further supported by the observation that fire setters within this profile are more likely to remain at their crime scene to observe their fires.

As this profile is associated with the use of fire for emotional release, it is associated with offenders who remain at the scene. It is also associated strongly with individuals who commit multiple fires (Canter and Fritzon 1998). As this profile is hypothesized to represent offenders who set fires for emotional reasons, nonspecific but identifiable triggers are associated with this profile as offenders may set fires to cope with emotionally charged events. Additionally, this profile is associated with the target of commercial buildings and hospitals which may cause more attention to be focused on the individual or on the event, corresponding to the emotional symbolism the fire may hold to the offender.

The final profile described by Canter and Fritzon (1998) is termed expressive-person and refers to arson which is “turned inward to lead to the disintegration of the fire setter him/herself.” Broadly, this category refers to arson committed for the purpose of self-harm or suicide or arson committed for the purpose of seeking attention from family or authorities. Canter and Fritzon point out that, typically, this style of arson is addressed in a therapeutic context rather than a forensic context and is thus seldom described within the available forensic literature. It can frequently occur in the context of mental illness, particularly depression or psychosis.

This profile is associated with the use of fire as an avenue to commit some sort of self-harm so, unsurprisingly, it is associated with suicide notes left at the scene of the crime, is frequently directed at the self, and frequently occurs in the offender’s own home. Due to the mortal intent of this profile, offenders frequently set fires in a manner where injury or death is likely to occur, and offenders are likely to remain at the scene (presumably to ensure they succeed in their intent).

In a pair of follow-up studies, the four-profile model proposed by Canter and Fritzon has been validated among a sample of adult prisoners (Almond et al. 2005) and a sample of juvenile fire setters (Santtila et al. 2003). Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) point out, however, that the model proposed by Canter and Fritzon was conducted using a sample containing both serial and one-time arson offenders. While the study had enormous implications to the field of arson profiling, several researchers (e.g., Geberth 1996) have pointed out that the technique of profiling has been found to have much more utility in the investigation of serial offenses in general, as non-recidivistic crimes are typically solved via regular investigative procedures.

The Profiling Of Serial Arson Offenders

Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) examined 148 incidents of arson committed in New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, in order to determine the extent to which offense behaviors could be used to classify offenders into discrete offender profiles from which offender characteristics could be inferred. Although the methodology, data analysis, and aims were similar to the study conducted by Canter and Fritzon (1998), all cases of arson examined by Kocsis and Cooksey were each part of a series of three or more arsons committed by a serial arson offender. It was thus a methodological aim of Kocsis and Cooksey to develop offender profiles that could be applied to recidivistic arson, on the assumption that development of these profiles would provide greater clinical and investigative utility than the profiles developed through previous research efforts. Using multidimensional scaling techniques and cluster analysis to examine 71 crime scene behavior variables, a total of four offender profiles were generated: thrill, anger, wanton, and sexual fire setters.

Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) describe the thrill pattern as encompassing those arsons that are set to satisfy nonsexual needs of stimulation and excitement. Within this profile, offenders are not represented to hold any animosity toward their target or victim; rather, they are attracted to the element of risk associated with the act (hence the label of “thrill” for this pattern). This profile can be likened to the “Excitement” profile of arson described by Douglas et al. (1992) although, while Douglas et al. group arsons which sublimate sexual needs in this category, Kocsis and Cooksey specify that sexually motivated arson represents a separate and distinct psychological profile and use the term “recreational fantasy” to describe the theme found within this arson profile. This profile will include arsonists such as firefighters who set fires in order to increase activity for themselves, teenagers who set fires in order to increase sensory arousal, and individuals who set fires in order to interject themselves with the firefighting effort.

Common crime scene behaviors associated with this pattern include variables associated with behavioral sophistication and planning. Offenders will usually be quite mobile, often choosing their target beforehand and travelling more than one mile to set their fire. While accelerants and materials will frequently be brought to the scene in order to create a larger fire, because fire tends to be the goal (rather than the destruction of property or harming another party), targets tend to be bush, grassland, or vegetation where risk of harm to other people will be minimized. As with the excitement profile described by Douglas et al. (1992), offenders within this profile will frequently set their fire in highly visible locations and will frequently remain on the scene (and may be subsequently identified and apprehended). A series of fires set by an offender within this profile will usually have less crime scene behaviors in common from scene to scene than a series committed by other profiles, as offenders within this profile are more likely to vary their choice of targets, methods of ignition, and other crime scene behaviors.

A number of offender characteristics are associated with this arson profile. Thrill arsonists are more likely than other arson offenders to set fires with co-offenders, are more likely to be socially affluent (e.g., they are less likely to live alone and more likely to be involved in social and romantic relationships), and are more likely to be employed. This follows from the observation that this pattern of arson is often committed to create excitement for a group of offenders (as with the example of a fire fighter setting a fire to provide action for his department or a teenager setting a fire with a group of friends). Interestingly, Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) point out that arsonists following this pattern frequently have poor dental work and some type of outstanding physical feature such as scarring according to information contained within the offenders police files. Kocsis and Cooksey surmise that, because these offenders are not physically attractive, their fires may represent the sublimation of possible sexual drives.

The second profile described by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) is termed the anger pattern and comprises arsons in which animosity or rage forms the principal motivation for the offense. In contrast to the thrill pattern, the fire is not the principal focus of this offense; rather, the fire is a vehicle through which the offender can facilitate personal harm to a specific victim. Consequently, offending behaviors associated with this pattern demonstrate an intent to cause specific and personalized harm to a victim. This profile is similar to the instrumental-person profile described by Canter and Fritzon (1998) and the revenge-motivated arsonist described by Douglas et al. (1992). Kocsis and Cooksey point out, however, that both the instrumental-person and revenge profiles described in previous studies require an identifiable relationship between the offender and the victim. Within the anger profile, the relationship between the offender and the victim is based more on cognitive knowledge or familiarity. Within this profile, offenders may not harbor any previous animosity toward the victim (or have a relationship at all!), but may attack due to a perceived relationship. This pattern, thus, is analogous to sexual murderers or serial rapists, who may choose their victim by type or perceived relationship. The common element between these offenders and arsonists within the anger profile is the presence of an unfocused internal rage. Offenders who commit arson in retaliation for a perceived slight or serial arsonists who target potential romantic partners who they perceive would reject them would both be included within this pattern.

Crime scene behaviors indicative of this pattern include evidence that the offense was designed to cause personal harm to the victim. Common within this profile is the tendency for offenders to physically destroy possessions of the victim prior to committing the offense, particularly items of personal significance to the victim or offender (e.g., photographs, souvenirs, gifts from other individuals). Targets of this pattern of arson commonly include residential properties or motor vehicles, which is unsurprising given the personal nature of this offense. It is also likely that the intended target of the offense will evidence a break-in and that the fire will be started from within the structure. The intent to cause harm will also be evident in the choice of conveyance for the fire; offenders within this profile will frequently use trailers to ensure a thorough spread of the fire.

Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) noted that, compared to other profiles, offenders within this profile tend to be foreign nationals who are more likely to be bi or trilingual and to possess a foreign accent. As the goal of this pattern of arson is generally the causing of harm to someone else rather than any fascination with the fire itself, offenders within this profile rarely remain on the scene. While Kocsis and Cooksey do not comment on the expected proportion of serial arsonists that may belong to each profile, other researchers (e.g., Sapp et al. 1994) have noted that anger and revenge appear to be the most frequently cited motive among serial arsonists studied.

The third profile described by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) is labelled the resentment pattern and includes arsons set in a generalized sentiment of animosity. Like the anger classification, this profile contains an element of displaced aggression; however, the anger displayed within this category will typically not be directed at a specific target – rather, it will be directed at a vague classification. This profile has some thematic similarity to the vandalism-motivated arson described by Douglas et al. (1992) and the instrumental-object profile outlined by Canter and Fritzon (1998), in that all three profiles refer to an unfocused nature of attack. Consequently, many of the observations made of offenses committed within this profile are similar to the observations made of vandalism and instrumental-object offenders. Examples of offenders who would be included within this profile are juveniles setting fire to a school or areas of bushland.

Within the model proposed by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002), the principal crime scene behaviors indicative of fires falling within this profile are the choice of target. School properties, state-owned properties, and commercial properties are strongly associated with this profile, which is consistent with target choices within the vandalism profile outlined by Douglas et al. (1992). This choice of targets may be reflective of a general sentiment of displaced aggression against public institutions, which would support the hypothesis that fires within this profile represent a sublimation of anger and resentment toward society. Examination of the MDS plot generated by Kocsis and Cooksey suggests that the majority of behaviors associated with this pattern of arson are deliberate and planned and are committed against more secured targets with access restricted.

Few individual offender characteristics are associated with this profile. Offenders within this profile typically possess a prior criminal record, which follows the hypothesis that these offenders will possess a general animosity toward society, and offenders may present with a pattern of authority issues and general antisocial actions. As with vandalism-motivated arson, individuals following the animosity pattern will light fires on weekends. While vandalism-motivated arson is described by Douglas et al. (1992) as largely being committed by juveniles, Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) do not comment on the anticipated age of this sort of offender, although they note that “school fire arson” (in which educational facilities are attacked by juveniles) is overrepresented within this profile. While the researchers do indicate that an element of animosity or resentment is a necessary ingredient for an offender to be included in this profile, Kocsis and Cooksey suggest that this profile warrants further study, in order to determine why this animosity develops.

The final profile outlined by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) was termed the sexual profile; this embodies an offense style associating the ignition of fire with sexual excitement and gratification. The inclusion of this pattern is consistent with early psychodynamic literature (e.g., Freud 1932; Macht and Mack 1968) which typified recidivistic arson as being principally motivated by repressed sexual drives. The most distinguishing feature of this pattern of arson is evidence of sexual activity by the offender at or near the scene of the crime. This profile of arson offending is difficult to reconcile with the profiles furthered by earlier research, which may be attributed to the choice of offenders sampled for Kocsis and Cooksey’s study (i.e., only serial arsonists, rather than serial and one-time arsonists). The authors do note, however, that the sexual profile does bear some resemblance to Cantor and Fritzon’s (1998) expressive-object pattern, in that both profiles are concerned with committing an offense to achieve emotional relief. Additionally, while the excitement profile described by Douglas et al. (1992) describes arsonists who offend in order to achieve excitement, sexual excitement is included as a sub classification of excitement arsonists in the Crime Classification Manual; it may be the case that sexually excited offenders from within this profile are more likely to reoffend, resulting in their being represented in greater numbers within Kocsis and Cooksey’s sample.

As expected, the crime scene behaviors with the strongest association with this profile are any evidence of sexual activity such as semen left at the scene, sexual aids (e.g., pornographic material), or fecal matter. Common targets include state-owned property on easily accessible premises or outdoor settings. This is consistent with the hypothesis that offenders will commit this crime in order to attain sexual release; offenders will typically choose targets which are easily accessible and highly visible, so that they can be watched to attain the required level of stimulation. Consequently, offenders will frequently remain at the crime scene in order to observe the fire or participate in its extinguishing. As the focus tends to be on the fire itself rather than the destruction of property, these arson attacks tend to be small in size and rarely escalate to major attacks. Common targets include trash receptacles, post office boxes, and public toilets.

Few offender characteristics are noted for this profile although Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) do point out that, compared to other offender profiles, arsonists following this pattern tend to have dark-colored hair and eyes – although the authors point out that these variables were included in the analysis in order to provide richness of data and were not designed to racially stereotype any group of offenders. Offenders are also likely to have a history of domestic travel, although they typically do not travel far to commit their offense, instead choosing to remain in areas familiar to them.

While the research conducted by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) identified four major profiles associated with recidivistic arson offenders, a novel finding of their research was a cluster of arson crime scene behaviors that seemed to be common among all arson offenses committed by the offenders within their sample. Termed the common behavior profile, this profile provides a core description of the characteristic behaviors common to patterns of serial arson. While the four profiles outlined by Kocsis and Cooksey provide important clues to differentiate serial arson offenders from each other, the common behavior profile can provide important clues to differentiate serial arson offenders from one-time or non-arson offenders.

A central element of all serial arson offenses reviewed by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) is the elements of planning, an observation matched by the finding that a relationship between the victim and the offender existed in nearly all cases of arson committed in the sample. This finding is inconsistent with the profiles outlined by Douglas et al. (1997) (notably the vandalism and crime concealment profiles) and the instrumental object profile furthered by Canter and Fritzon (1998), with both studies reporting that planning was not an essential component of an arson offense. Kocsis and Cooksey address this incongruence, however, by pointing out that planning may be an element differentiating serial arsonists in particular and that crime scenes demonstrating planning of the offense may indicate the work of a serial arsonist. Kocsis and Cooksey also point out that serial arsonists across all profiles commonly enter their targets and steal items of value before setting their fire, a constellation of behaviors suggesting a greater disregard for the risk of apprehension or detection. This is in contrast to other crime modalities, such as murder or rape, in which offenders are typically deterred by greater risk of apprehension.

Future Directions And Conclusions

Though underdeveloped, the field of profiling arson offenders appears to hold a number of exciting possibilities for future advancement. In spite of the profiling systems described to date, however, no system has been developed that adequately represents the range and depth of behaviors and characteristics of arsonists. This may be partly attributed to a number of methodological and practical considerations that limit investigation into arson profiling. Within this section, we will outline what we believe are the most significant problems in this area and make suggestions for further advancement within this field.

A concern inherent in the study of arson profiling (and, in fact, arson literature in general) is an innate sample bias. As mentioned previously, arson has a low clearance rate, and what is known about arsonists pertains only to those fire setters who are identified and apprehended and conclusions drawn from such a sample may not be truly representative of the arsonist population. It is worth noting that the profiles developed by Canter and Fritzon (1998) and Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) were derived from an analysis of solved arson offenses in the United Kingdom and Australia, respectively, and the profiles generated by the NCAVC were developed based on case reviews of solved arson offenses (Douglas et al. 1992). While using solved cases represents the only method that can be used to marry crime scene details to offender characteristics, it is impossible to determine the extent to which these profiling efforts can be generalized to unsolved offenses. Future research may address this concern by collecting data from individuals imprisoned for other offenses but who may have fire-setting histories for which they were not apprehended. As investigative techniques evolve, improving the clearance rate of arson and contributing to a larger (and more representative) sample size of solved arson cases, the present frameworks may be found to have inadequate empirical depth to account for the relationships between offender characteristics and crime scene behaviors.

It is important to consider, also, the origins of any classification system developed to profile offenders. Doley (2003) points out that asking questions such as who collected the data and why, the type of sample the information was drawn from, and for what purpose the typology was originally intended for are important for identifying any potential weaknesses that are inherent within that system. While the profiles developed by Kocsis and Cooksey (2002) differ in several fundamental ways from the profiles generated by Canter and Fritzon (1998), the authors point out that this is likely due to their decision to only include serial arson offenders in their sample and the typologies generated by this approach are only applicable to the profiling of recidivistic arson offenders. While this methodological concern may limit the extent to which Kocsis and Cooksey’s approach can be generalized to the profiling of arson offenders generally, it also suggests potentially fruitful avenues of future research, for example, further studies investigating the extent to which non-serial arson offenders can be profiled using this framework. Similarly, while the profiles generated by the BSU have been criticized by some researchers as lacking theoretical grounding (Canter 1989, 1994), the methodology used to generate these profiles is the same as the methodology used to generate all profiling frameworks currently used by the United States FBI (Dietz 1987; Rossmo 2000). Certainly, these profiles do result in a series of testable hypotheses and further research could be conducted to determine the extent to which these profiles can be used to profile offenders.

While the research canvassed within this research paper represents a series of admirable attempts to provide a framework for the profiling of arson offenders, understanding of this field is underdeveloped and limited to only a handful of published studies. Given the amount of theory proliferation in other areas of offender profiling in recent years, this dearth in the literature is especially remarkable. In spite of a handful of published frameworks purporting to profile arson offenders, research validating these frameworks is virtually nonexistent and crime scene investigators, professional profilers, and mental health professionals are forced to employ profiling methodologies which are not empirically validated. Criminal profiling is frequently cited as being helpful in the criminal investigation of violent and sexual crimes by criminal investigators (Geberth 2006; Holmes and Holmes 1992, 2000, 2008; Turvey 1999). Thus, it is likely that professionals would benefit substantially from further development in the field of arson profiling.


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