SHU offers unique course in criminal profiling

CJ (criminal justice) 260 “The dark side of crime: Profiling” gives students an introductory look at the in’s and out’s of criminal profiling. It uses serial killers as a frame of reference for the topics covered in the course. While this article will not go into the details of serial killings, the course itself is graphic due to the nature of the topic.

Jeremy Olson, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice begins the course with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” It calls for students to put themselves in the mindset of the criminals they study, and “gaze into the abyss” so to speak, in order to better understand how to profile them.

Understanding the people behind such crimes can lead to solving difficult cases and even preventing the crimes in the first place. “As an inquisitive species, we are also always seeking answers to how our fellow humans can treat each other so inhumanely,” said Olson.

The students in CJ 260 prepare for the Ghost Tour.

The students in CJ 260 prepare for the Ghost Tour.

While the academic purposes of CJ 260 pertain to the process of criminal profiling, the real-life context of the course is to teach students investigative skills applicable to other situations. The course teaches students “how to begin incorporating information from all sources into an investigation, to pay very close attention to detail and to understand that ambiguous evidence is just that- ambiguous and open to interpretation,” said Olson.

CJ 260 is a relatively new addition to the criminal justice program at Seton Hill. It is a part of the focus of the program which centers around the humanity of the victims, offenders and all other people either closely or remotely related to the crimes. “We stress to the students that the administration of justice to offenders must be tempered by mercy since these offenders are still people,” said Olson.

The course calls for students to think critically about the impact crime has on victims, offenders, investigators and the community. “We also challenge our students to question everything they are told in the hopes that they will come to understand and stand firm in their own beliefs about how we should be treating other people,” said Olson.

The course was first introduced when Olson asked a group of “criminions” (criminal justice students) what topic they would like to learn about in a special topics course. Many of those students expressed an interest in the topic of serial killing. Olson did plenty of research on serial killing and even contacted some professional criminal profilers.

The course was initially offered as a special topics course; nearly half of the students enrolled were from outside the criminal justice major. After it went so well, Olson worked to have it placed in the regular curriculum. CJ 260 as its own course has been offered twice and will continue to be offered every fall.

Olson continues to expand and improve the course each fall. “I still reach out to people with expertise in serial crimes and I continue to read on my own.  Any new knowledge gets added when the course comes up in the schedule,” said Olson.

According to Olson, the main topics of the course include basic profiling terms, an introduction to personality theories, the process of profile development, what is involved in reading each type of crime scene, getting to know victims, differentiating types of sex crimes, an introduction to cult and satanic killings and a review of health care killers. So far, the class has yet to cover all of that in one semester, but Olson hopes to one day do so.

Criminal profiling defined by Olson is “the art of building a comprehensive description of an unknown offender based on the physical and non-physical evidence present in multiple crime scenes.”

The process begins with finding a “signature” or impulsive act that can be attributed to the offender. Then the profiler takes in every other detail about the crime scene and the victim to “build a picture of the person responsible for the killings.” This leads to thinking about what type of person would have access to these victims and places and what they were trying to accomplish with each detail of the crime.

This device was used to record during the Ghost Tour.

This device was used to record during the Ghost Tour.

CJ 260 includes four major assignments that introduce students to the skills necessary in criminal profiling. The first assignment is a group presentation regarding personality theory. Olson defines personality as “a stable pattern of thoughts and behaviors that distinguish one person from another.” “Understanding how we think personalities develop is vital to looking at victims and crime scenes and creating a picture of the kind of personality that would commit the acts involved in the killings,” said Olson.

The second major assignment in the course is called, “My favorite serial killer.” This project guides students as they build a profile of a known serial killer in the reverse order of how is typically done in profiling. The students then either present their work to the class or to Olson in a research paper. “My favorite serial killer allows each student to see how profiles can be accurate or inaccurate and to see where the information in a profile is applied to an offender’s real life,” said Olson.

The third assignment is to profile several cases including real, unsolved cases and fictional cases constructed by Olson based on a mixture of details from real-life cases. This semester, the students are focusing on a case Olson calls “Dark night to boat.”  “The case file includes details of the murders, summaries from the investigating detectives, coroner reports, maps of the dump scene and dump scene pictures of one of the victims,” said Olson.

The last assignment is a forensic ghost investigation. Olson said, “This assignment is a little tough to give specific details about.  One part of the forensic ghost investigation assignment is that the students have to make connections between the ghost investigation and what we learn in this class.”

A basic description of the ghost investigation is that the class meets on a Saturday night and is split into groups that are assigned different locations on the Seton Hill campus to investigate paranormal activity. The class prepares by learning about what a paranormal investigation is, the tools used in such an investigation, and how to gather evidence.

Olson first came up with the idea for a ghost investigation in this class when he accompanied Seton Hill’s archivist, Bill Black, his wife Laurel Black, and their daughter Willa on a ghost investigation through the Ghost Researchers in Pennsylvania (GRiP).

At the time, Olson was researching profiling investigation techniques for CJ 260. “When I went on my first ghost investigation with this group, I immediately noticed some similarities between what GRiP members were doing and what I was reading about,” said Olson.

The Blacks helped Olson develop a way to use this type of investigation in his profiling class. They also attend the ghost investigation along with a group of paranormal investigators Professor Laurel Black works with at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).

Saturday Nov. 8 CJ 260 students met for the ghost investigation. Students were sent to locations all over campus including the tunnels, the administration building, the graveyard and Maura Hall. They worked with students from IUP using various ghost hunting tools to investigate the possible presence of ghosts. The students used cameras and took notes to record any possible evidence. For those wondering whether the criminions encountered any actual ghosts on this year’s investigation- it depends on who you ask!

Olson has three main goals he hopes to accomplish with CJ 260. The first is that his students walk away with the thought “that people are so much more than the stereotype of the worst thing they have ever done.” Olson said, “When we get that and when we know the back stories of their lives and their victimizations, we might just move closer to better preventing one person from hurting other people.”

Next, he hopes students learn to connect each piece of evidence to get the whole story. While on the surface, a piece of evidence’s meaning may seem obvious, a closer investigation can show other possibilities. “Nothing tells everything,” said Olson.

Lastly, Olson said, “I hope they walk away with themselves.  Knowing and seeing the things we learn in this class can change some of the things students believe about our world.”

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