Guest Post: ABC3s of Profiling by Sid Heal

About The Author: Charles "Sid" Heal is a retired Commander from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department where he spent more than half of his career assigned in units charged with handling law enforcement special and emergency operations. He spent his early formative years on the streets of south central Los Angeles before becoming a team leader on one of the department's six full-time SWAT teams.He continued to rise in rank and eventually became the commanding officer of the Special Enforcement Bureau.He holds three college degrees and two lifetime California teaching credentials and is the recipient of more than 160 awards and commendations relating to his career in law enforcement.In addition to his career in law enforcement he is also a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer with service in more than twenty countries, including four tours of combat in four different wars.He is currently the chairman for the strategy development section of the National Tactical Officers Association and vice-president of the California Association of Tactical Officers.

As a result of both these careers, he has been personally present for the operations involving the 1992 coup d'état in Thailand and the riots in Los Angeles, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the response to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001 and a host of lesser known tactical operations and disaster responses.

He is also the author of Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer and An Illustrated Guide to Tactical Diagramming, as well as more than 150 articles on military and law enforcement subjects. His latest book Field Command is an outstanding resource for all of law enforcement.

I am honored to have this article posted here with the permission of Sid.

“So how do you tell a Catholic from a Protestant?” A most asinine question to nearly everyone I’m sure, but when I posed it to Seamus, my Irish colleague, he laughed heartily and replied in his heavy Irish brogue, “Well, for one thing you’ll never find a Protestant named Seamus!” Then, for the next half-hour he proceeded to tell me all the ways that Irish Protestants and Catholics were different. Not just their religion and where they worshipped, but what they named their children, how they dressed, where they worked and lived, their lifestyles, how their yards looked, and even which holidays they celebrated.

This was a subject that has long fascinated me. After all, if you’re going to hate someone, you have to be able to tell them apart. That question related to my trip to Belfast, but when I was in Sarajevo I asked my interpreter, Sabahoud, “How do you tell a Serb from a Croatian from a Bosnian Muslim?” Again, and in great detail, “Sabba” explained the many differences. In Jerusalem, I posed a similar question to Tibby, my friend and “tour guide.” Once again I was treated to a wealth of information on how to tell an Israeli from a Palestinian. I was especially interested because I was on a fact-finding trip and needed to know how the Israelis were identifying potential bombers disguised as Israelis.

In each case, and without any hesitation or doubt, the people I talked with described the many differences between the groups. Some of the differences were obvious and readily apparent, but many were subtle and only the most discerning would be able to tell. But the point I was most interested in was that you could tell, and with a great deal of certainty. Each of the groups fit a “profile” that included their most noteworthy characteristics and distinctive features.

Suspect profiling is one of the most contentious and misunderstood subjects confronting contemporary law enforcement. The mere mention of the word can instantly send the more militant into a paroxysmal fit. It has taken on even more significance in light of the increased need to identify terrorists, especially before they act. Practically speaking, however, criminal profiling has proven to be one of the most useful law enforcement strategies yet devised. It has been successfully employed for everything from catching child molesters and discouraging prostitution to intercepting drug couriers. It is routinely used in other countries to thwart acts of terrorism.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have long recognized that the human mind is incapable of endlessly processing an infinite amount of information. This is true of all decision making, but because of the harsh time constraints and potential consequences, tactical decisions are especially difficult and do not readily lend themselves to complex algorithms or lengthy thought. Reliable profiles developed by subject matter experts provide a valuable heuristic tool because they help sort through the volume of information to make the relevant more conspicuous. Profiles work because humans tend to be creatures of habit; that is successful actions are more likely to be repeated. This is why identifying the modus operandi, or “M.O.,” of a criminal has proven so useful in catching criminals and preventing crime. For the same reason, when groups are involved, whether it is terrorist cells, organized crime or street gangs, they tend to follow somewhat predictable patterns. Moreover, the members affiliated with these groups tend to adopt similar behaviors, attitudes, and dress. The similarities are intensified when they are predominately from a single region, culture, religion, race, age or sex.

In the last several years, criminal profiling has received intense public scrutiny as a result of “racial profiling;” that is using a person’s race as the sole or predominate factor in determining criminal intent or culpability. This practice is not only unethical; it is unproductive, since there is simply not enough information in a single attribute or behavior to draw such a wide inference. Furthermore, the issue has become so contentious that facts are becoming obscured with emotion. One politician gained national headlines when she accused a police dog of racial profiling, which even generated calls for the canine to be killed! As the criticism grows more intense, “racial” profiling and “criminal” profiling are becoming homogenized, resulting in the uninformed and naïve calling for an end to all forms of profiling. The extreme result of this problem can be viewed in any American airport when watching a “random” search of an elderly woman or even a younger one while her small children wait patiently nearby. Given the circumstances, what’s the chance that either of these “types” would be involved in the hijacking of an aircraft? As we Americans seem to be in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” it seems prudent to take some lessons from our overseas colleagues.

Law enforcement has long desired an ability to arrest all the bad guys while leaving all the good guys free to go about their lawful business without being molested. Notwithstanding the most noble intentions and diligent efforts, however, no technology or technique has even approached this ambition. Yet criminal profiling is a major step in the right direction. While the most reliable profiles are always assembled by subject matter experts, profiling need not be a complex and time-consuming process, and a “profiler” need not have advanced degrees in psychology, sociology, or anthropology.

The most important aspect of a reliable profile is that it can be proactive. Rather than just catching a criminal after the act, a good profile provides an ability to deter crime. For example, a practice of assertively stopping, questioning and identifying individuals who fit a profile for a robber explicitly identifies them and deprives the perpetrator of the anonymity necessary to avoid arrest if a crime is committed contemporaneous to the place and time of the stop, not to mention discovering incriminating evidence during the investigation. The implications of this aspect in thwarting acts of terrorism are especially appealing and hardly need more justification.

Developing a reliable profile requires a thorough knowledge of your adversary, and while there is no universally recognized method, some observations may prove useful. First and foremost, it is important to remember that profiles are always generalities. They use standard patterns and norms to draw conclusions to apply them to specific events and individuals. As such, there are two inviolate rules. The first is that not all suspects will fit a profile. The second is that not all people who fit a profile are suspects. A profile is simply a heuristic tool to make efforts at detecting crime and criminals more efficient and more effective. They attempt to answer three fundamental questions, what is likely to happen, how it will occur and who is likely to do it?

Because I tend to be somewhat simple-minded, I have taken the lessons learned from my overseas colleagues and “distilled” them into two symbols for helping me remember them. The first is for identifying potential victims, locations and times they are likely to occur. It is represented by the figure, “T4,” which stands for “Trends, Targets, Tactics and Tools.”
Trends are simply general tendencies or inclinations. For example, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, acts of terrorism were often hostage taking, especially aircraft hijackings. When the world responded with counter-terrorism forces such as the American “Delta Force,” the British 22nd SAS, the Israeli Sayeret Matkal, the German “GSG9,” and the French “GIGN,” coupled with the successful hostage recovery operations at Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, Mogadishu, Somalia in 1977 and the Prince’s Gate in London, England in 1980, terrorists increasingly switched to bombings. Since the 1980s, bombings have been the preferred method of terrorist attack, and as authorities have become increasingly adept at thwarting bomb attacks, terrorists have also had to adjust their tactics, most recently resorting to suicide attacks. The point is that an understanding of the trends of your adversary reduces the extent of possibilities to an understandable and somewhat predictable region of probabilities. Preparation and defenses then become possible.

Targets identify the potential goals and victims of an attack. Terrorism, for example, does not rely on overwhelming force, but rather surprise to succeed. A terrorist can succeed only by attacking in an unexpected time or place, or in an unanticipated manner. Consequently, “hard targets” that are fortified and prepared are seldom attacked. Accordingly, terrorists avoid military bases, nuclear installations, and other facilities that are heavily defended, in favor of “soft targets” such as airport terminals, bus stations, restaurants, malls, and so forth.

Tactics refers to the methods and concepts used to accomplish particular missions. When confronting terrorism, the tactics used in one situation or region may not be applicable to another. Suicide bombings is one good example. The chances of Americans contending with the tactic of suicide bombings, such as those currently being experienced in Israel, are nearly zero. Why? Because a terrorist doesn’t need to commit suicide to be successful in America. It is only because the Israelis have been so effective at thwarting conventional bombings that terrorists have had to resort to this extreme. In America, homicide bombings are far more likely and this rudimentary understanding will help to focus attention on the more likely tactic of simply planting a bomb and leaving.

Tools are simply the weapons and devices necessary to carry out an attack. Once a target and tactic can be identified, the identification of the trends will often aid in the identification of what “tools” to look for. The rental of large vans or trucks, the acquisition of large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a purchase of pipes and caps without other fittings, couplings or connections, theft of blasting caps and “det” cord, are only some of the examples of the tools necessary for a makeshift bomb.

The identification of a target or victim is one benefit of a profile, but it is when profiles attempt to predict who is most likely to commit a criminal act that they become the most controversial. Nevertheless, this type of profile is the most practical and the type most often used. The symbol that represents this type of profile is, “ABC3,” which stands for Appearance, Behavior, Customs, Culture and Context.

For purposes of a profile, appearance refers to a person’s outward appearance, particularly sex, age, ethnicity, clothing, and handbags. Continuing with our “bomber profile,” a person attempting to plant a bomb must conceal it in someway. Because the typical improvised explosive device weighs from 10 to 35 pounds, backpacks are popular. Likewise, suicide bombers wearing these devices must conceal them under outer clothing, so loose or baggy clothing should arouse suspicion, especially if it is “out of place” as in hot weather or inside buildings.

A person’s behavior is one of the best predictor’s of intent. Their demeanor, actions, bearing, manners, and attention provide strong clues as to their intended purpose. For example, a person carrying a bomb may grip the package conspicuously tight or demonstrate extraordinary care in handling it. A lookout may exhibit even more conspicuous behavior than the bomber as they surveil the surrounding vicinity, make furtive glances, seem impatient or stare at a particular area or person. Likewise, attempts to gain access to secure areas and questions about security should give rise to suspicion and merit further investigation.

As we grow up, we unwittingly absorb a myriad of conventions that identify us with our family, religion, country and even region. These customs manifest themselves in any number of ways, such as speech patterns, mannerisms, and any number of idiosyncrasies that we pay no attention to, but which identify us a belonging to a particular group. During World War II it is said that one of the hardest things to “train out” of Americans preparing to infiltrate occupied Europe was how we eat. Europeans typically put the knife in their right hand and the fork in their left and never switch. Americans, on the other hand, usually cut their food with their right hand and then switch the fork to their right hand to eat with it. Such trivialities can be highly conspicuous and identify people who are “out of place.”

Culture provides such strong clues to a particular group that it is typically used by archeologists and anthropologists long after death to identify a person with a region, period of history, religion, even their occupation and status within a community. Our culture strongly influences our habits of dress, recreational activities, what we eat, what we buy, even how we sit. Without conscious thought we inadvertently revert to our “comfort zone” and unconsciously transmit to the attentive observer traits and characteristics that identify our social values and attitudes. Criminals from another culture attempting to “blend in” may appear awkward and ill at ease and may spend considerable effort not to stand out.

Context identifies the circumstances and setting in which an event occurs. Context may often provide strong clues of which criminals and terrorists may not even be aware. My Israeli friend Tibby told me of one suicide bomber dressed as an Israeli soldier who was identified and captured because he was smoking on a Saturday. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath and the would-be bomber was in a part of Jerusalem that is largely populated by Hassidic Jews who strictly follow their traditional religious laws, one of which is to do no work on the Sabbath, not even lighting a cigarette. Consequently, the bomber stood out even though he was dressed in disguise.

It is critically important to remember that profiling is a dynamic process and profiles must be constantly adjusted to fit new information, especially when criminals adopt new methods to avoid detection and capture. Without question, they single out certain “types” and “groups” of people for special attention. Notwithstanding, they perform a valuable service by reducing the sanctuary of anonymity where crooks and terrorists hide.


This article was twice previously published and is published here with permission of the author; Heal, Sid, “ABC3s of Profiling,” Police and Security News, January/February 2003, p. 47 and Heal, Sid, “The ABC3s,” The Tactical Edge, Fall 2004, pp. 36-39