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Universal principles of criminal behavior: A tool for analyzing criminal intent. (Research Forum).

A 39-year veteran detective of the Cleveland, Ohio, Police Department watched two men walk back and forth in front of a store window. They took turns peeking into the shop and walking away. After several passes, the two men huddled at the end of the street and looked over their shoulders as they spoke to a third person. Concerned that the men intended to rob the store, the detective moved in, patted down one of the men, and found a concealed handgun. The detective arrested the three men, thwarted a robbery, and averted the potential loss of life. This detective's detailed observations became the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding stop and frisk. (1) More important, the Court acknowledged that criminals often communicate their intentions prior to the commission of a crime.

A broad analysis of unlawful activity reveals that all criminal behavior shares a common set of universal principles. These principles remain constant; however, they manifest differently for each individual depending on personality, criminal activity, and extrinsic factors. The universal principles of the criminal behavior (UPCB) (2) model does not focus on causal factors but, rather, provides a way to analyze the constituent stages of criminal behavior. Investigators can use the UPCB model as a tool to analyze criminal behavior in its nascent stages. The UPCB, a four-stage model, encompasses ideation, communication, facilitation, and actualization. Understanding the basic tenets of the UPCB model sensitizes law enforcement personnel to the antecedent behaviors that might signal future aberrant or criminal behavior.


Ideation motivates behavior for good or evil when conscious or subconscious thoughts take precedence as a result of intensity or frequency. Thoughts and ideas do not constitute crimes, but they do serve as the genesis for criminal behavior. However, not all repetitive thoughts portend evil. Thoughts of becoming a movie star, doctor, or firefighter inspire people and can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Conversely, compelling or nurtured thoughts of a nefarious nature can result in criminal behavior.

Criminals ideate as they formulate and reformulate plans to rob a bank, blow up a building, or avenge a slight. Even criminals acting on impulse ideate, however briefly. Ideation provides forethought that enables people to regulate their behavior or serves to rationalize criminal behavior. For the antisocial or psychopathic mind, ideation provides a value-free forum within which to develop new ways to take advantage of others or commit criminal acts. Ted Bundy, probably the most written-about psychopath, repeatedly ideated fantasies of sexual control and domination. Bundy meticulously thought and rethought his plans to entice young women and subsequently murder them as he envisioned. (3) Bank robbers, embezzlers, street muggers, and other criminals plan and think about their crimes before they act. Ideation manifests itself physiologically, verbally, nonverbally, symbolically, and behaviorally.

Ideation, a universal experience, presents itself differently for each individual depending on a variety of internal and external factors, including personality traits and personality disorders. For example, such criminals as John Wayne Gacey, the serial killer; (4) Ted Kaczynski, the UNABOMBER; (5) Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; or Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her own children, (6) all shared one thing in common, ideation. They ideated consciously and subconsciously before they acted out their crimes.


People continually communicate their conscious and subconscious thoughts physiologically, nonverbally, and verbally. Calm thoughts lower the heart rate. Anxiety and fear cause the heart to race, speed up breathing, increase perspiration, or manifest in other forms of outward discomfort. Bored listeners nonverbally demonstrate inattentiveness, disregard, o complete antipathy by rolling their eyes or crossing their arms while standing askance. Conversely, people often tilt their heads to one side when they like someone or hear something favorable. Humans constantly emit nonverbal communications, which sometimes accurately betray innermost thoughts more often than the spoken word. (7) "Casing" a store or stalking someone exemplifies behaviors that communicate criminal intent. The same holds true for terrorists who seclude themselves, conduct countersurveillance, call from multiple pay phones, or use only cash when operational. These behaviors communicate ideated thoughts. In the same manner, individuals assigned to protection details look for the face in the crowd that does not fit in or one that suddenly changes expression. Similarly, parents look for nonverbal "tells" when their children misbehave.

Psychopaths communicate ideation through their predatory behavior. Perenially lying, conning, manipulating, and changing like a chameleon under varying circumstances, they live callously shallow, glib lives and show little stress and no remorse. They leave a debris field of human suffering in their wake. (8)

Symbolic gestures and emblems also provide powerful communication. Raising the middle finger in the United States, a Nazi salute, or bearing one's teeth need no explanation. Symbolic emblems, such as clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, and cars, can reveal how people feel about themselves and others. (9) Some people use such emblems as tattoos to communicate their thoughts, values, and lifestyles. John "Bill" King, who dragged James Byrd, Jr., to his death behind his truck in rural Texas, dramatically scripted his hatred of blacks in the form of tattoos on his arms for all to see. (10) Others use bumper stickers to broadcast their beliefs on abortion, gun control, and other subjects. Gangs communicate loyalty by wearing "colors" or monikers or by using complex hand signals. Skinheads shave their heads, render Nazi salutes, and tout other white supremacist paraphernalia, outwardly communicating their hate. The emblems and symbols that people choose or adopt provide bountiful insight into their thoughts long before the utterance of a single word." (11)

The written or spoken word also betrays inner thoughts and ideation. David Kaczynski recognized the similarities between the personal correspondence he received from his brother and the UNABOMBER's published manifesto. This astute observation led to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski. (12) Questions also betray the thoughts of the inquirer. For example, the seemingly idle questions "What are the consequences of cheating?" "How much jail time do you get for shoplifting?" or "What are the ingredients of gunpowder?" communicate ideation about cheating, shoplifting, or making bombs.


Physical exertion provides the link between thought and action. Depending on the sophistication of the criminal and the complexity of the criminal act, preparatory steps can range from simple to complex. These actions, no matter how stealthy, signal criminal intent to an astute observer, such as the detective in the opening paragraph. Facilitation transforms ideation into behavior that draws criminals closer to acting out their intentions. From purchasing explosives to stealing a car for a bank robbery to following the travel routes of an intended assassination victim, these all facilitate and communicate, in many ways, what the person is ideating. In some instances, criminals conduct formal or informal practice sessions before the actual commission of a crime, thus providing an observer with additional opportunities to detect criminal intent. Purchasing a weapon, testing explosives, or taking steps to avoid detection after the crime, such as alibi creation, further facilitate the intended criminal act.


The criminal act completes the transmutation of an idea to action and usually reflects the criminal's intellect and personality. Personality and psychological disorders often manifest during the criminal act and provide investigators with valuable clues to the identity of the perpetrator. (13) Throughout facilitation and actualization, individuals continue to transmit thoughts physiologically, nonverbally, and even verbally depending on the circumstances. Under stress, anxious criminals often fail to recognize their own nervous or odd behavior, which signals an eminent criminal act to the knowledgeable observer.

Practical Application of the UPCB Model

The UPCB model helps law enforcement officers analyze and prevent criminal behavior. Parents, teachers, coworkers, and friends often note behavior-changing ideation before the commission of a crime. By applying the UPCB model, individuals often can track the development and progression of nefarious thoughts and ideas. Armed with this knowledge, school administrators, workplace supervisors, and law enforcement authorities can take steps to intervene prior to the commission of the ideated criminal act.

From an analytical perspective, the UPCB model can assist crime scene analysts and investigators when retracing, step by step, the progression of a crime. The UPCB model also can assist investigators by providing a behavioral map to identify dormant leads, witnesses, or even evidence.


Criminals, regardless of their circumstances, think about the crime that they intend to commit, communicate their ideations or intentions, prepare to carry out the crime, and, finally, commit the crime. Each stage in the universal principles of criminal behavior model affords an opportunity for observation and intervention. Police officers no longer need to rely solely on intuition to prevent crime. The UPCB model, when combined with good observation and analysis, forms the foundation for effective crime prevention and intervention strategies.

By identifying the component parts of criminal behavior, law enforcement officers and interested observers more reliably can predict antecedent behavior before a crime takes place. The fruits of this approach have beneficial and long-lasting consequences for all.


(1.) Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

(2.) SA Joe Navarro, M.A., "Utilizing the Universal Principles of Criminal Behavior," lecture at Saint Leo's University. Saint Leo, Florida, School of Criminology. October 14, 2000.

(3.) Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman, Whoever Fights Monsters (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 72-73.

(4.) Eric W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and Their Victims, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1997), 170-72.

(5.) Evan Thomas, et. al., "Probing the Mind of a Killer." Newsweek, April 15, 1996, 32-39.

(6.) The Washington Post, July 26, 1995, sec. A, p.7.

(7.) Mark L Knapp and Judith A. Hall, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, 4th ed. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1997), 24-25.

(8.) Supra note 4, 66.

(9.) David G. Givens, The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues (Spokane, WA: Center for Nonverbal Studies, 1998-2002);

(10.) Joseph L. Galloway and Bruce Selcraig, "Into the Heart of Darkness," U.S. News and World Report, March 8, 1999, 18-20.

(11.) Jack Schafer and Joe Navarro, "Hate Unmasked: A Practical Model for Understanding and Dealing with Hate Groups," Chicano-Latino Law Review, UCLA School of Law 21:201 (Spring 2000).

(12.) Supra note 5.

(13.) Supra note 4, 256.

Special Agent Navarro serves in the FBI's Tampa, Florida, office and also as a member of the FBI'S National Security Division's Behavioral Analysis Program. Special Agent John R. Schafer is assigned to the FBI'S Lancaster, California, office and also serves as a member of the FBI'S National Security Division's Behavioral Analysis Program.
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Article Details
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Author:Schafer, John R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Juvenile Justice. (Bulletin Reports).
Next Article:Warrantless interception of communications: when, where, and why it can be done. (Legal Digest).

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