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Forensic Psychology Role in the Investigation of Crime Essay

Crime is regarded as one of the major vices in the world. Crime levels have over the years increased and caused devastating effects to people, institutions and government security agencies. The adoption of several techniques to curb such cases has been ensured. Forensic odontology, serology, criminal profiling, forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry are some of the methods (Saferstein, 2000).

The use of the methods majorly depends upon the complexity of the crime, nature of evidence available and level of forensic technology available (Saferstein, 2000). This paper analyses how forensic psychology plays a crucial role in the investigation of crime. It critically examines how and when the method is most appropriate as well as the efficiency and reliability.

Forensic psychology has always been confused with other forms of psychology such as organisational, social and industrial psychology. It should be noted, however, that forensic psychology is largely skewed towards the knowledge on legal systems as opposed to the rest that concentrate on human behaviour and attitudes (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002).

Human behaviour and attitudes especially when found on the other side of the law is really the biggest concern for a forensic psychologist. The forensic psychologist should be well acquainted with the legal and judicial systems of a given nation (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002). The constant interaction with lawyers, litigants, judges and other law professionals along the corridors of justice makes them important in the administration of justice.

They act as intermediaries in the interpretation of psychological findings into legal language. Philosophical principles that govern both psychology and criminal law are of great interest to the forensic psychologist (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002). In most cases forensic psychology is preceded with clinical or counseling psychology. The knowledge on forensic psychology is obtained after a considerable interaction with the legal staff.

It should therefore be noted that whereas an ordinary psychologist may reason with his client, a forensic psychologist is bound by the law to ensure that the data required is presented when required by the court. Forensic psychologists are majorly found in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, federal and law enforcement agencies. They are majorly tasked with the responsibility of giving testimony in a court of law (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002).

Forensic psychology employs the use of several techniques among them; face recognition, eye witness memory and eyewitness testimony. This technique was first applied in the 19th century. The murder case surrounding its development and application was committed in 1896 (McCardell, 2001). The case was however conclusive of the fact that it was very difficult to distinguish between what was seen at the crime scene and what was reported thereafter.

Facial recognition is one of the cognitive processes employed in crime investigation. Face recognition employs the visual sense to capture salient features such as size of the nose, color of the eyes and hair, shape of the face and color of the skin. Similar features may be shared among people but each person enjoys certain unique features. It is therefore possible to describe two persons having the same skin color on the basis of their eye colors (Melton, 2007).

This information regarding a person is usually stored in the human memory for later identification. Crime suspects are usually identified through this method. Striking facial features are stored in the memories of the eye witnesses. This information is later used to identify them before they are presented before a court of law for trials (McCardell, 2001).

It is, however, unfortunate to note that the success of face recognition is dependent on the mental condition of the eye witness and the time of exposure. A criminal whose face is exposed for a longer time may provide more facial information than that exposed for a short period.

A person who suffers from schizophrenia finds himself/herself in difficulties of interpreting facial information (Melton, 2007). The effectiveness of this method is therefore uncertain. This cognitive process is a function of emotionality. Most crime scenes are characterized by fear and commotion.

It is usually difficult to find genuine eye witnesses at a crime scene because most of them disappear for fear of a similar attack. Remorse, anxiety, fear and uncertainty are usual among eye witnesses. Most people do not anticipate that crimes would happen within a given locality and time (McCardell, 2001). The occurrence of criminal event usually comes as a surprise to many, a reason that makes people unprepared for them. The evidence provided by such unsure persons may therefore be misleading.

The accuracy of forensic psychology is definitely at stake once the incriminating information is incorrect. Most bank robberies have witnessed most criminals escape the arm of the law.

Most eye witnesses have been put on record for placing much emphasis on the weapon used. It is common to hear that AK-rifles or pistols were used, the escape route was a particular avenue and the vehicle used was a van. The eye witness concentrates much on how the crime was executed and gives little information about the persons involved (McCardell, 2001).

False conviction may therefore characterise most reported cases of crime. Other cognitive processes involved in crime investigation involve other mental skills such as perception, thinking and judgment. All these skills vary among people and the objectivity of such in the investigation of crimes may be compromised. The legal systems place much reliance on these processes for the execution of justice. People think, judge and act differently in situations of crime.

These differences should be related to human behavior by a forensic psychologist in order to make such evidence reliable before a court of law (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002). Neglect of such variations would severely affect the administration of justice. Human memory has also been found to vary, a reason that makes the legal proceedings difficult in cases where contrasting evidence is used for crime investigation. Proper conviction is dependent on correct identification of crime suspects.

There are three major stages of eye witness memory (Sporer, 2006). The person who observes a crime happen registers the information into his/her memory. Face recognition plays a crucial role in this stage. As discussed earlier, the time of observation and emotional and mental conditions affect the quality of information so obtained. It is therefore important to consider these factors before rendering such information a good recipe for legal proceedings (Sporer, 2006).

A good example is illustrated. Two police officers were subjected to pilot test where they were to interview a person each. Police A subjected his client to a 60-second interview whereas police B subjected his client to a 45-second interview. The police officers were required to describe the observable features of their subjects. Police A gave a detailed explanation of his subject more than what his colleague gave. Fear and anxiety have also been known to affect the recall levels of eye witnesses (Sporer, 2006).

The waiting period is also significant in forensic psychology. This is defined as the period between the collection of crime information and recalling it. It has been found that this period may affect the outcome within a legal system. Human memory is known to retrieve the information already obtained in the previous stage. The nature of memory plays a role in determining the quality of crime information retrieved.

A person’s state of mind may fail to give the correct information pertaining to a crime. The retention time is used to define the time between crime perception and recalling. Statistically, a crime has a low retention time enjoys minimal false identification cases as opposed to that with a high retention time. A crime that had a retention time of 3 days produced perfect identification of criminals .

A 5-months retention period crime yielded 35% misidentification cases (Sporer, 2006). The third stage involves the actual presentation of evidence. The information encoded by the brain is retrieved and presented before the legal staff through questioning and probing. The mode in which questions are asked influences the quality of testimony so obtained. The forensic psychologist becomes of importance since he/she can be able to relate the answers offered to the attitude and emotional state of the witness.

The evidence provided may also differ depending on the persons involved (Ogloff, 2000). It is factual that people’s judgment differs depending on situations. A person who breaks into a house to avert possibilities of a fire break out may be mistaken for a robber. Such a case must be handled with care in order to ensure that wrong conviction is not experienced. The contextual aspect of an occurrence should be understood before substantial information is presented in a court of law.

The presentation of evidence before a court of a law is usually a defining moment for both the witness and the suspect. It is usual to observe cases where the witness wrongly convicts a person for a crime he/she did not commit (Saferstein, 2000).

The fact that forensic psychology is subjective can lead to wrong incrimination. It is therefore important to ensure that forensic psychology corrects such anomalies long before a court of law gives its ruling. The forensic psychologists play some crucial roles in ensuring that the court delivers a binding ruling.

It is common phenomenon to observe suspects sent to psychiatric facilities for reasons of unsound mindedness (Saferstein, 2000). The competency of a suspect is crucial for any legal proceedings. The forensic psychologist should ensure that a suspect is competent by ensuring that he/she is medically fit at the time of trial. Health conditions that would deter effective trial should be identified early enough and corrective measures recommended. The sanity of the suspect is also evaluated by a court of law (Saferstein, 2000).

The forensic psychologist is usually tasked with the duty of establishing the mental condition of the suspect at the time the crime was committed. It is usually at the discretion of the court to determine whether a person is sane or insane. The defense lawyers may plead ‘Not guilty’ if it is established that indeed the suspect was insane at the time the crime was done.

However, the forensic psychologist should not conclude that a suspect is of sound or unsound mind. He/she should critically examine the suspects past health records and information, behavior, attitudes and happenings (Ogloff, 2000). Information obtained during this period should not be incriminating at all.

However, most cases have seen most suspects incriminated by the information obtained during competency and sanity evaluations. This information is later presented to the court for it to qualify the findings as whether the suspect was insane or not. It is at this point that the court can dismiss or proceed with the case. Most suspects have been known to fake or pretend to be having some mental illness (Ogloff, 2000).

The forensic psychologist is usually able to ascertain such cases by closely examining the suspect under different environments. The report of whether a mental illness is genuine or fake helps to curb such cases. The suspect may find himself in greater problems once such a report works against him/her. The nature of sentence delivered by a court of law is usually of importance to the forensic psychologist.

A sentence that would otherwise impair the mental condition of the suspect may be negotiated by the forensic psychologist. Such negotiation that is aimed at mitigating the sentence offered depends on a number of factors.

They include health history, family history and social history. Some people who suffer from mental conditions and have dependents may enjoy amnesty of the court if a comprehensive forensic psychology is carried out on them (Ogloff, 2000). It is therefore important that a track record of a suspect is properly documented by the forensic psychologist to ensure that a qualified and appropriate judgment is given.

The forensic psychologist may be faced with the challenge of providing information regarding whether a suspect would change once subjected to a rehabilitation facility. Judgments that subject criminals to probation and parole hearings require that forensic psychology reports indicate that the criminal is prone to positive change (Ogloff, 2000). The selection of the jury to proceed with the hearing and conviction of criminals also depends on the report of the forensic psychologist.

Forensic psychology has been criticised for many reasons. The method is purely subjective as compared to other methods like DNA analysis. Forensic psychology is based on a collection of human observations, opinions and judgments (Ogloff, 2000).

The differences in such among humans have led to misidentification and wrong conviction of suspects. Most criminal investigations have been known to take ages before legal proceedings are initiated. The human memory that is usually difficult to recall events after a long period of time may therefore be misleading.

The psychology of human beings has been known to respond to different environments. A shocked person gives insufficient information compared to a happy person (Sporer, 2006). Legal proceedings that are based on such information are unfair to suspects and may lead to unwarranted sentences. Forensic psychology can therefore not be used in isolation especially where trace evidence is required. The fact that criminal investigators can implicate a person cannot be ruled out.

Insufficient evidence may lead to criminal incrimination due to hate or prejudice. It is for this reason that forensic psychology draws a great deal of criticism from the public. How can it ensure that substantial evidence is presented in court? How can the reliability of the information be ascertained? How can future crimes be averted through this method? All these concerns should be addressed to make forensic investigations fruitful.

Information offered by witnesses should be backed by trace evidence such as finger prints and hair traces. Similarly, the reliability of the information provided by the witnesses should also be subjected to integrity tests. Truth does not contradict itself. A person telling the truth can be distinguished from another giving a false testimony if both are subjected to the same questions repeatedly. The installation of surveillance cameras in public institutions has helped to avert criminal cases such as robbery.

Crime has been there for a long time and what remains to be done is how the vice will transform itself in generations to come. Different approaches of identifying and dealing with the perpetrators of crime have been employed since time immemorial. The essay has discussed the use of forensic psychology as one of the many forensic procedures.

A critical evaluation of the procedure has revealed that much has to be done if it is to be effective in providing evidence in a given court of law. Subjectivity of forensic psychology stands out as the most critical weakness and a lot must be done to enhance its reliability.


McCardell, E. (2001). Face Recognition: Cognitive and Computational Processes. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamin’s publishing Company.

Melton, G. B. (2007). Bringing psychology to the legal system: Opportunities, obstacles, and efficacy. American Psychologist, 8 (4)

Ogloff, J. R. P. (2000). Two steps forward and one step backward: The law and psychology movement(s) in the 20th century. McGraw-Hill Plc.

Otto, R. K. & Heilbrun, K. (2002). The practice of forensic psychology: A look toward the future in light of the past. American Psychologist, 5 (7)

Saferstein, R. (2000). Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Sporer, S. L. (2006). Introduction to Eyewitness Identification: Psychological Issues in Eyewitness Identification. New Jersey, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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