Criminology and Criminal Psychology “Practical Psychology for Policing”

Criminology and Criminal Psychology “Practical Psychology for Policing”

by Consultant-Expert Johan W. Wessels (Dubai Police)

Psychology has always been a useful source of knowledge when it comes to the interpretation of human behaviour.

Due to developments in society, in the United States, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its report in May 2015 with diverse recommendations. Nonetheless, psychology alone is limited in certain ways because one has to understand individuals from their sociological and environmental circumstances to validate psychological methods appropriate in their study.

In legal practice, psychology has made very little contribution owing to the complexity of the subject of Justice and the systems of legal action (Bagnoli & Traverso, 2013, p. 102).


In the case of Dennis Andrew Nilsen under review, the testimonies submitted by two psychiatrists on the defence team and one on the prosecution desk display a conspicuous parallel and contradiction. Whereas the crime of murder, under the legal definition is based on the accused person’s intentional act followed by the execution of the act; psychology might seek to establish the basis of the mental makeup that produces such actions, and that essentially goes beyond legal preponderance.

The psychiatric discipline in the time of the conviction of Dennis Andrew Nilsen was much less advanced and lacked useful advancements and refinement in practice today.

All the literature regarding the possible basis of his psychological makeup and the associated factors of stressful work, lonely life premeditated by homosexual orientations amount to trash in the greater scheme of legal professionalism.

Although the Dennis Nilsen case presents a useful start point to evaluate the essence of psychological knowledge in the legal parlance, much more needs to be solicited by technical harmonization and hybridization of the two distinct fields.

In the case, the only reasonable and constructive contribution of the psychologists was to demonstrate that the plaintiff was in a state of sound mind and would be taken through a rigorous process of litigation to affect the course of justice.

Nilsen switched between the real world and his fantasy world with great efficacy than most people can attest. Although many people have double lives, Nilsen was a bit more gifted than ordinary people in the execution of extreme toxic emotional life deeply laid underneath a calm outward appearance that defeats every victim he encountered. The question is how psychology or any other fields of humanistic knowledge facilitate policing operations to manage the challenge posed by these queer kind.

Converge between Psychology & Policing

While policing and the legal practice indulges in the systematic accounting of events and their comparison with laid down standing orders and statute, the psychological profession seeks to determine how mental maps, motivations, and experience or character orientation intervene in people’s behaviours that are characterized by crime. Although each section has its narrow scope, convergence is useful concerning spelling out terminologies and theories that make both operationally effective in the business of justice and the advancement of law and order (Tyler, Goff & MacCoun, 2015, p. 103).

The conventional policing model makes the assumption that human motivation is based on unidirectional incentives and sanctions within their very immediate situations and environments.

On the contrary, the situations and drives that cause human action today are diverse. Some are transposed on their technological exposure and learning while others construe from diverse influences in their learned sexual orientations. The functional models of deterrence that would benefit the policing agencies today have to be founded on astute psychological studies and profiling of individuals. The impact of diverse behaviour interventions of correction schedules on individuals like incarceration or probation has to be crafted on a sound understanding of their psychological makeup.

As society advances and enlightenment becomes entrenched in society, people are reactive than just socially or morally determinate (Singh & Boomsma, 2015, p. 980). In this typology of cultural complexity, the methods of policing have to embrace the new typologies of cultural and social orientations. Recently, it has been established that even the death penalty does not achieve substantive deterrence among many sections of society. In some studies, it has been observed that punishment does not produce compliance and that given methods of sanctions do not necessarily solicit compliance. Efficient apportionment of resources through diverse operations of social control would be the only way rather than if many more prisons are built and the use of scare gadgets.

Psychological models of social control have been in theoretical stages of development for a long time and should gradually penetrate established practices of policing and law enforcement. As culture advances to a stage where people question the true legitimacy of authority, psychological models might be useful in mediating the established programs so that certain sections of society are included in the grand scheme of the process of social control (Wilson & Seaman, 2007, p. 35). The legitimacy appeal poses the theory that people should comply with the system of norms and order as construed in the order of society without questioning their substantive properties and nature.

The Case of Dennis Andrew Nilsen “The Muswell Hill Murderer”

Dennis Nilsen had a rough childhood which made him find the only solace in the world from his ageing grandfather, a fisherman with little much of possessions to order the youth’s many needs and escapades. Poor circumstances inspire all ills in the world.

The case of Dennis Nilsen reveals much more than meets the eyes because killing such a substantial number of people effectively without detection is a masterly exercise. The criminal salience in the case of Dennis Nilsen can be attributed to diverse causations if viewed in the wider scope of intellectual intervention. For instance, the manner the convict treated the victims’ bodies must have been informed by a knowledge of the legal evidence validation mechanisms. The method of killing which solicited no noise and probably evoked public response was another efficient aspect of preparedness to delude the authorities.

The trigger of the events leading to the arrest of Nilsen started from the detection of a blocked drainage system at his apartments, and it was identified that part of the material causing the blockage was remains of human flesh and body parts. When the investigating officers intercepted him and demanded that they discuss further in his apartment, they were struck by the evidence of putrefying human flesh in the house. Nilsen immediately did not deny and gave the police a vivid recollection of the ordeal that started in December 1978. In all the incidence, Nilsen explained vividly to the police how he had treated the victims.

He was however particularly adamant to state why he killed the victims and asked the police that perhaps they would reveal to him. The bodies that were killed in the previous apartment would be left to decompose adequately, and occasionally he interred the fragments before interring them at the garden at the back of the house.

Nilsen killed most of his victims in the Cricklewood apartments in North West London and only killed three at the Cranley Gardens house. In the former house where he lived between 1978 and 1981 and the last residences occupied between 1981 and 1983, the convict killed a total of between 12 and 14 individuals and attempted a total of seven other murders.

The act of stripping himself naked and masturbating on the corpses or lying next to the corpses to masturbate is an indication of a queer sexual disturbance that naturally manifests a lack of moral locus in the personality.

When the background of the convict is investigated, it can be shown that the close association with his grandfather and perhaps the mother’s resentment towards the abusive father must have implanted the seed of deep resentment in the young boy. Psychology can establish useful and relevant intervention to such individuals as they grow up rather than innocently waiting for maturation to deal with consequences.

In the case of the victim Stotter, the events that transpired and led Nilsen to escort the victim to a railway station to head home is a strange circumstance of a foiled murder attempt. Whether Nilsen decided consciously just to release the victim because he did not succumb, or it was a case of divine intervention is hard to tell.

Nonetheless, it could be that Nilsen himself was drunk to the point of losing his efficiency and mental coordination in the process to achieve the fore-planned outcome (Hasisi, 2015, p. 102). The fact that the victim did not make a follow up to get justice is commonplace with victims across diverse lower social strata who consider forgiveness and morality useful to their survival.

Aspects of case pertinent to Policing & Psychology Considerations

The Nilsen case reveals that living arrangements in most apartments facilitate the ease with which crimes can be perpetrated, and certain designs and arrangements are restrictive.

Policing activities and schedules should be adapted to the reality of the conditions in which people live (Jackson, & Gau, 2016, p. 66). Nonetheless, the ready submission of Nilsen that he perpetrated the acts show that he did not recognize the legitimacy of any authorities in this life. There existed no institutions that should control his action, and for that reason, although he recognized that he was wrong and was ready to face punishment, he is unperturbed about the social and moral conclusions pertinent to his plight.

Without inbuilt moral locus in individuals to be a part of a bigger picture of human survival and cooperation, there is much left to validate the necessity for orderliness, justice, truth and norms. Society cannot thrive when people express the feelings that Nilsen showed through the case, and this is a pertinent reason for psychological work to find methods of establishing a moral connection between individuals and the institutions constructed by society to facilitate order and justice (Canter & Žukauskiené, 2012, p. 48).

The personality disorders that Nilsen exhibited required prompt attention and even rapid recognition and intervention. Psychological interventions in the media and the economy to address the needs of society should be exhaustive enough to avert the possibility of the experiences as exhibited in the case of Nilsen.

The nexus of personality and the societal arrangement could either aggravate the progression of the condition of Nilsen or deter his progression.

If Nilsen lived in a very adequately supervised society that allowed extensive interaction between people, the degree of privacy the convict attained in his apartment could not have been achieved and probably the stealth to carry out the murders could have been unattainable.

Suggestions for Improving the Scope of Psychology & Policing

Psychology is instrumental in many ways for the improvement of policing activities and in legal practices. Psychology has been very instrumental in the enhancement of the image of the policing agencies in the media and other incidences (Pryor, 2016, p. 78). Public trust and confidence in these agencies are crucial for the obvious reasons that society has become more complex and dynamic as a result of technology and humanistic progress.

Although psychologists did an impressive interviewing of the convict, these interviews made a useful contribution to the legal practice by acknowledging that Nilsen was in a state of sound mind during the process of the killings and even at court, the state of his mind was sound for a competent and erudite composure to defend himself. Beyond this, the findings of the psychologists have not been adequately incorporated into the models of police preparedness to deter such criminals which are a more sound consideration than the presumed indifference until grave crimes occur and punishment cannot adequately compensate the victims or their relatives (Murphy, Bradford & Jackson, 2016, p. 112).

The blatant importance of legitimacy of authority is that it can facilitate and supplant moral values and adherence to norms. Whether working within the scope of the police agency or through the crafting of related institutions and societal norms, psychology has a fundamentally useful capacity to reinforce the contents of socially sustainable and instrumental morality in society.

Psychological works and intervention in the media could be indulged to promote collective concerns among the citizens and heightened moral concerns (Vist, 2016, p. 15).

The program of manufacturing and food distribution could also be indulged so as to advance a citizenry that emotionally and socially situated to embrace progressive and collective moral interactions. Such a society readily identifies the character types of Nilsen and finds solutions to their maladaptive behaviour because they naturally fail to be functional in the interaction complex sustained in society.


Such a society readily identifies the character types of Nilsen and finds solutions to their maladaptive behaviour because they naturally fail to be functional in the interaction complex sustained in society.

The case expressed above is a critical display of the gaps that exist in the classical conception of policing and control schedules of a community by morality. Although morality shall always be a vital consideration in the mechanism of a hierarchal scheme of social regulation, social evolution with technology and enlightenment is posting huge challenges to society in many ways.

Psychology and nutrition or psychology and education have great potentials in addressing social issues that society experiences.

It has been noted that much of emotional disposition is a derivation of nutritional dispositions. Therefore, Nilsen’s behaviour could be entirely altered would it have been a society that strictly regulates the patterns of alcohol consumption and the amounts individuals can hold in their households. Just like the mechanism of alcohol distribution sale greatly influences the politics of society, it could also greatly influence morality if suitable controlled in that perspective.

Furthermore, in a court process, psychology has demonstrated a vital contribution in the determination of the mental function of convicts thus facilitating their trial and eventual punishment to advance justice.


This essay is written as part of my personal study towards an MSc Criminology and Criminal Psychology. It is dedicated to all the criminal psychologist that place their mental health on the line to profile serial killers to keep us safe.


* Bagnoli, L., and Traverso, G.B. eds., 2013.Psychology and Law in a Changing World: New Trends in Theory, Practice, and Research. Routledge.

* Canter, D. and Žukauskiené, R. eds., 2012.Psychology and Law: Bridging the gap. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

* Hasisi, B., 2015. Police, politics, and culture in a deeply divided society. In Policing in Israel: Studying Crime Control, Community, and Counterterrorism (pp. 87-106). CRC Press.

* Jackson, J. and Gau, J.M., 2016. Carving up concepts? Differentiating between trust and legitimacy in public attitudes towards legal authority. In Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Trust (pp. 49-69). Springer International Publishing.

* Murphy, K., Bradford, B. and Jackson, J., 2016. Motivating Compliance Behaviour Among Offenders Procedural Justice or Deterrence?. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 43(1), pp.102-118.

* Pryor, T.K., 2016. The psychology of legal decision making (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).

* Singh, M. and Boomsma, J.J., 2015. Policing and punishment across the domains of social evolution. Oikos, 124(8), pp.971-982.

* Tyler, T.R. and Jackson, J., 2014. Popular legitimacy and the exercise of legal authority: Motivating compliance, cooperation, and engagement. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(1), p.78.

* Tyler, T.R., Goff, P.A. and MacCoun, R.J., 2015. The impact of psychological science on policing in the United States procedural justice, legitimacy, and efficient law enforcement. Psychological science in the public interest, 16(3), pp.75-109.

* Vist, N.V., 2016. Psychological and Pedagogical Conditions for the Prevention of Deviant Behaviour among Adolescents. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 11(15).

* Wilson, C. and Seaman, D., 2007. The serial killers: A study in the psychology of violence. Random House.

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