Behavioral Science Unit – Part I

December 23, 2009

An overview of the history and responsibilities of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit which studies why criminals do what they do.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. If you ever wonder why criminals do what they do, there’s a place at the FBI where there are studies and analysis. It’s in the FBI’s Training Division, and it’s called the Behavioral Science Unit. Supervisory Special Agent Dr. Greg Vecchi is the unit chief.

Mr. Vecchi: “Basically, behavioral science is nothing more than an umbrella term that encompasses interactions between individuals; group dynamics within social systems—it’s all about understanding the meaning behind behavior. So behavioral science, we look at specific social science disciplines to draw a lot of our techniques and explanations and theories. We look at criminology, we look at psychology, we look at conflict studies, and we look at perception and other theoretical frameworks and things like this, and we try to bring it in under the umbrella to try to understand, ‘What is the meaning behind behavior.’ So, behavioral sciences has come—at least as far as the way we define it—as an umbrella term for understanding behavior so that then we can apply that understanding to techniques, tactics, and procedures that are expressed in terms of training, further research, and then consultations to help agencies with their cases and their problems.”

Mr. Schiff: We asked Dr. Vecchi how the Behavioral Science Unit started at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Mr. Vecchi: “We started actually back in 1972. At that time, the National Academy training was moved from Washington , D.C. to the newly-built FBI Academy that stands here now at Quantico , Virginia . So, that stood up in 1972 and so did our unit, so that was the beginning year, and we were basically challenged or charged with the mission to just do something in behavioral science for the National Academy. And that is kind of how it started. Over the years, we have been training National Academy at about 1,000 per year. That’s with the Behavioral Science Unit and some other units here at the FBI Academy —units in leadership and forensics and media, communications, stuff like that. So when the National Academy comes to the FBI Academy for training, many times they wait a long time. Sometimes four or five, 10, 15, I’ve seen even upwards of 30 years to come to the FBI Academy . It’s kind of like a war college for the state and local law enforcement officers. So they come here, and then when they get here, they choose courses to take. So Behavioral Science puts on a number of courses. What we offer right now are courses in the applied behavioral sciences; we offer courses in cyberspace; in conflict and crisis management; in futuristics; in death investigations; gangs; spirituality; stress management; and terrorism. And so they take these courses with us, they get credit from the University of Virginia ; three hours credit. We all have to be adjunct instructors with the University of Virginia and have to have at least a master’s degree, and then we teach them a 44-hour course. And, so, that is the reason we exist.

What was interesting is that over the years, as far as the history goes, we are much more known for our research and some of our consultations on some of the various cases that have happened over the years, and that came from the National Academy. You can imagine back in 1972 up until the early 80’s we were teaching courses on homicide and violent crime, and of course the police officers would ask about better techniques, so they would come in and talk about their cases. And so, what we are most known for, and what we continue on today in this tradition, is the problems in law enforcement come out in the classes, and so do the cases and their other concerns. And so back in the 80s, you know, a police officer from Washington would raise his hand and say, ‘You know what, we are have a problem with prostitutes being killed and the weird thing is, they all have dark hair and green eyes.’ Then someone from the middle of the country, from Kansas , would say, ‘You know, we are experiencing the same thing.’ Then somebody from down in Miami would say, ‘You know, we are seeing the same thing.’ And so this is the first time ever that we were able to connect serial crime. And from there, developed and coined the term ‘serial killer,’ the criminal investigative analysis stuff, and the profiling and the victimology, and all this stuff comes from National Academy . Not only in that area, but also in the area of gangs and the area of futuristics and other things. So as this developed, we began to research these areas. So we would coordinate with a number of universities to help us out, and then came all the things that are kind of normal that everyone takes for granted almost—things like rape investigations; understanding suicides; and understanding various aspects of death investigation, negotiation, all came out of the Behavioral Science Unit as far as the research connected with the National Academy. And then we would be called upon, of course, and we still are, to consult in those areas. We’ll have a National Academy person call us back years after or months after when he runs into a problem and he remembers the class, then we help them out, we are like a sounding board, we help develop leads. So that’s kind of been the history and kind of how it works. It is very unusual but very, very effective.”

Mr. Schiff: During our conversation with Dr. Vecchi we asked, “What is behavioral science from the criminal standpoint?”

Mr. Vecchi: “Well, behavioral science looking at the criminal, is trying to understand the person’s motivation. That’s where we focus on. We want to answer two questions about criminals. We want to answer why do they do things, and we want to understand how do they do things. If we understand the why, if we understand the motivation, that is the first step in understanding behavior. And if you understand behavior, then that becomes the sum of individual group values and needs and desires that are perceived to be blocked. From there, if we understand these values and needs, that is the basis which we draw our strategies and our tactics and all the things that we do in our training blocks and research and also the consults.

I will try to give you an example of one thing we have done in the past: Years back, we had a unit member—his name was Robert Hazlewood, he went by Roy Hazlewood—and what he liked to is he would study serial rapists. What he did and what we continue to do, following on what him and some of our forefathers, so to speak, have continued to do, is interview the perpetrators. You interview the perpetrators for the purpose of understanding their motivation, why did they do it and how did they do it. In his example, or an example I can give you, is he determined that the motivation of a rapist was based on two reasons—the why of it, so to speak. One was power: in other words he would target, this would be a rapist who would target victims perceived to be helpless and defenseless and vulnerable, or unable to complain. The other piece that came out of the motivation besides power was anger. Those are people that would target the victims for physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. What he did, with the help of a number of academics, is he came up with a behavioral spectrum—which is the what—as far as why do these individuals rape. He came across four areas: power reassurance, power assertion, anger retaliation, and anger excitation. Those were kind of the spectrum.

If you look at power reassurance, it's all about the person thinking that it’s a fantasy of consent. So he is committing the rapes because there’s a fantasy that she’s actually consenting, that she actually wants it, that he’s there to help her—that’s one end of the spectrum. On the far end, the opposite of the spectrum, there’s anger excitation. The anger excitation is sadism, genital mutilation, very, very bad and nasty things that you will see on the opposite end. Then what happened is that over the years, this process—understanding behavior—became the basis for getting confessions and admissions during interrogations and having the understanding of how best to protect a victim from becoming a rape victim in the first place.

Understanding this type of research, this type of motivation—all rooted in the behavioral sciences—is now taught to law enforcement agencies worldwide, and it’s used for interviews and interrogations; it’s used to help in investigations; and of course the development of prevention and mitigation measures on the part of the victim.”

Mr. Schiff: So interesting and so much more to learn. Next week we’ll get into more about serial killers with Dr. Vecchi. Check out for details on the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. That’s our show for this week. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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