FBI Forensic Psychologist
Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto received a bachelor’s degree in English from De Sales University, a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s degree in Theology and Pastoral Counseling from De Sales Graduate School of Theology, a PhD in psychology from Georgetown University, and a post-doctoral degree in clinical psychopharmacology from Alliant University.
Dr. Pinizzotto has spent most of his professional career working in law enforcement. He had worked with the Criminal Investigations Division, Training Division, and the Fifth Police District of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C before joining the FBI as a senior scientist and clinical forensic psychologist. But he also worked a night job as a Catholic Priest at a church in Virginia.
Now he is retired from the FBI and spends his time running a clinical forensic psychology consulting company, working as a consultant to the FORCE SCIENCE RESEARCH CENTER, and editing peer review journals such as Criminal Justice and Behavior: An International Journal, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, and The Journal of Family Violence.
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First off, it’s a little bit different that you are a priest and a forensic psychologist. I didn’t realize that priests could also work in law enforcement.
Generally speaking that is the case for parish priest. But for order priests or a priest who belongs to an order, which is what I began in, you are often called to teach in a certain subject. Now, there aren't too many priests that are forensic psychologists. I don’t know of any other forensic psychologists who are also priests, but there are priests who have doctoral degrees in Chemistry, in Physics, in Greek and in different languages.
Our order needs teachers. So we’ll get a masters degree in a subject that we need to teach to our students. Some priests go for a doctorate and then an area that they will actually teach. It was just by a series of strange coincidences that I ended up a priest who is also a forensic psychologist working in the FBI as the chief psychologist in the behavioral sciences unit. I don’t know that the stars will ever be aligned quite like that again.
It definitely makes for an interesting career doesn’t it?
Well it does and it was very fascinating. I enjoyed it immensely. I am now back more in a pastoral setting. Though I still do some degree of consultations in the area of forensic psychology, particularly in and almost exclusively in law enforcement. But it gave me a pretty good grounding in forensic psychology working both in law enforcement and in the FBI.
How did you first become interested in Psychology?
Well that is interesting because when I was in the seminary I was asked to major in economics because like I said, we were a teaching order. So they looked and said,“ Well we probably need someone in economics” and unfortunately they chose me.
Then after about the first semester I realized not even with the grace of God could I continue to study economics…. So I begged out of economics and one of the areas that I was hoping to major in was psychology. But at that time they said, “No we really don’t see any purpose in that”. So I got my Bachelor's Degree in English instead.
At one point along the line, I taught a course in report writing at a police department's police academy. They were looking for somebody with a background in English because they wanted to teach basic writing skills to their officers. Well that was really my introduction to law enforcement. I really enjoyed Law Enforcement.
So years later when I was looking to get out of English because I realized that it was not my field either, I actually went for a short period into what was then termed the Administration of Justice. But one day I was sitting in a senior seminar and I was listening to someone present his paper. I will never forget this, it was very much a day like today.
It was beautiful outside, and I was sitting there next to the window. There was a classmate of mine presenting his senior paper on the color symbolism of John Steinbeck's Red Pony and I remember wanting to take my pen and stick it through my eye haha…..So I said what am I going to do!!! I have to get out of English, I can’t see going on for a Master's Degree in this stuff.
At that point, the Catholic Bishops came out with a statement on peace and justice. So using that statement on peace and justice, I wrote up a request to my superiors to get a Master's Degree in the Administration of Justice. Surprisingly, since I have a degree in English I could write well, so I made a good argument, and they said “ok”, and so I went to American University.
While I was there that’s when I got hooked up with the police department. The professors at American University said to me, “You know, you have a good understanding in courts and corrections because you worked in those areas, but you never really had any contact with the police. So you ought to do some work with the police department.” So that’s when I joined the Metropolitan police as a reserve officer for three years and worked in uniform with the police and taught at their police academy regarding police report writing.
That is also when the psychology came in because as I was responding to calls, I was just amazed, here’s a little kid from Stilton, Pennsylvania, I’m from a small town, called Harrisburg, which is not even a major city. Up until then I had absolutely no experience in city life and here I am responding to gun shots fired. What really turned me toward psychology was trying to understand what was going on in these communities.
The first call that I got responding to shots fired, we ended up at this apartment with people sitting around playing cards. I was thinking that this is the wrong apartment, because if shots were fired through my window while we were sitting around playing cards we’d still be under the table.
These folks were still sitting around playing cards because this was just not a big thing to them. Shots were fired frequently in that neighborhood. Then, I said ,"Well, ma’am could you point to where the shot came out through the window and embedded into the wall." So she did and I went over to the wall to look for where the bullets landed and she said "No, no, those bullets were there before. The new ones are over here." I thought," How could you deal with this kind of violence and seeing these everyday crimes."
That really made me think, and then as I responded to other calls for service, I began to think that this is just so far out of my realm of understanding. How do I start trying to understand what these people are going through? Not only how people deal with this but how could people do these things to each other?
I mean, when I was a kid we got into fist fights, that was it, and we grew up with guns. I grew up hunting. You would never THINK of pointing a gun at somebody, you would not even think about that. You would never THINK about pulling out a knife on someone. We would carry knives all the time.
When we hunted, you would never even think of pulling out a knife on somebody or pulling a gun on somebody. This was a routine thing that people would be doing and dealing with in this city day in and day out. So that’s when I began to think....This is what I need to understand, this is something that is really perplexing to me.
So then I wrote a second request to the bishop that I move from Administration of Justice into the field of forensic psychology. My superiors at that time agreed to that because what I put in my letter that supported the information not only in the bishop’s statement but that I would also be able then to teach this in their schools. We ran both high schools and colleges so it seemed a good fit.
So I went to John Jay up in New York and got my Master's degree. That was a terrific experience. There were two things that made it just from terrific to even more terrific. The professors there were not only academics but they were also practitioners. So in class we got the theory but they applied it in real life. I was able to do my internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and that was eye opening.... again for the same reason.
I had never experienced these kinds of disorders that were just diagnoses in my text books. But I couldn’t get the feel of them being in people and I remember the first time somebody came in with a disorder. She came in and she was all dressed up and she had her underwear on the outside of her clothing. So I was walking in the corner of the examination room thinking, one of the other interns must have put a camera up here, he wants to see my reaction.
Well this was an honest to God patient that was dressed like this. Once again, it just made me think I’ve got to learn more about this. That’s when I decided to get the doctorate and went to Georgetown. This is really a short history, but at Georgetown, not only did I get my PHD but I remained there and taught courses in Forensic Psychology and Abnormal Psychology and that was when I was recruited by the FBI.
What did the FBI recruit you to do?
The FBI initially approached me to do a study on why people kill police officers. Unfortunately, I had a friend who was killed in the line of duty while I was working with the police department, so I was infinitely interested in that area of study. So when they approached me with that interesting research question I jumped at it.
I loved the thought of working on a project that examines why people kill police officers. Then I signed a contract, a year contract with the FBI to work on that project, which then became a 20 year contract. Eventually it became a 20-year lifelong interest of mine. Three studies later and 20 years later I retired from the FBI.
So we did, a trilogy called "Killed In The Line of Duty", "In The Line of Fire", and then "Violent Encounters", for over a 20 year period on why people not only kill police officers, but what the dynamic is. It is an interesting concept, what we referred to as a deadly mix between the officer and the offender with the circumstances to bring them together.
My doctoral dissertation, as you probably know, was on profiling. I don’t even like that word anymore but that was what the dissertation was on. I did some of that with the police department, but interestingly enough I got none of that in the FBI.
Really, no profiling in the FBI?
Well, my approach and their approach was considerably different. So I still do crime scene evaluation and psychoanalysis, or what I refer to as psychological assessment of the crime scene. I don’t do profiling because I’m a psychologist so I do a psychological analysis of the crime scene.
Can you describe your process when you arrive at a crime scene?
Well my approach in psychological analysis of the crime scene is multifaceted and it’s my basic philosophy that in order to understand any human behavior you have to look at it from a bio-psychosocial perspective. In crime scene evaluations that same basic philosophy applies where, the more people that are involved in viewing its dynamic, the better the probability that you will understand it.
So I’m the psychologist but I also get a criminal investigator and depending upon the crime scene we would have a pathologist. So we all examine different aspects of that crime and then together come up with a complete analysis of the crime scene. So my small part of it is trying to look at the behaviors that took place and ask what do those behaviors tell us about both the offender and the victim that were involved in that crime scene. There’s a lot of attribution theory that’s involved in that.
And what’s really challenging about that is you can have for example two very different crime scenes. Let’s say there are two crime scenes, two rape crime scenes and in one there is very little physical damage that was involved with the woman but there is a great deal of psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage. Which is very difficult to quantify.
But just looking at the physical damage, you might say there is very low physical damage and then the next one you’ll look at it you’ll say, “My goodness, she’s been beaten severely”. These must be two completely different people who did this... but there is a danger in that because what one has to examine is the entire situation and what took place between the victim and the offender.
So you can have for example an offender who is. (This is simplistic of course just for the sake of example). Some of them are very sadistic and the victim was compliant and so there’s very little physical damage because the victim is not putting up a struggle, and so there is some damage but not a lot of physical damage.
Yet on the other case the victim might put up quite a struggle. Well that struggle in itself, not only gets the offender angry but it excites him, so it causes him to do more and more damage. So it’s the same offender, but the victims are so different that the crime scenes appear so different.
So we really have to examine the crime scene built from the perspective of the offender and the victim. When I say that of course I always follow and say, we’re not blaming the victim and of course were not, but, we have to look at the etiology, which is a little study in itself.
Why does somebody become a victim? How does somebody becomes a victim? Why is it that some victims react this way and why do some victims react that way? Unless we look at crime scenes and evaluate that etiology, I think were missing a large part of trying to piece together that crime and the results of that crime.
In some way it’s reverse, if you think of it, in some ways looking at a crime scene for a Psychologist and not health practitioners it's sorta like a reverse war shock test and we’re seeing a very neutral image, and now were asking, what is it about that crime scene, what are the effects of that crime scene that are a part of the, or expressive of the psychology of both the victim and the offender.
Is there any particular case that stands out in your career? One that resulted in the apprehension of a criminal?
My primary role in most cases is to complete a psychological evaluation, so I didn't take part in apprehending criminals. Now, the amount of input that I have on a case will depend on the case, and I don’t talk about specific cases, I just don’t think its appropriate. But one of the most fascinating cases that I worked on, I didn’t work on by myself, but worked on it with another psychologist, a clinical psychologist.
She’s just incredible. Her clinical insight is very impressive and we did what’s traditionally referred to a psychological autopsy. Now the purpose of the psychological autopsy as you know is to look at the manner of death that a person may have died: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide. With the psychological autopsy we examine the circumstances of the death and retrospectively look at the person’s life and then ask, what took place in this incident and these circumstances.
We look to see whether it’s typical of a suicide or an accidental death. That’s usually what we’re looking at in the psychological autopsy. On this case, it was quite different because we knew that the person committed suicide, this person was a serial offender and when the police approached him, he shot himself and killed himself. So there was no ambivalence or ambiguity or questions as to the matter of death, he shot himself in the head and killed himself and died of a self-inflicted gun wound.
But the question from the investigators was an interesting one. Here was a serial offender and they wanted to know because his offenses were with children, they wondered if he was more likely to work alone or with others, because if he did work with others then is it possible that there were some other victims who were still being held captive.
Because the way he was caught was, one of his victims actually got away from him and turned him into the police. So here the question was is this somebody who had worked alone or worked with others. So by doing a psychological autopsy; by reviewing what he did, how he did it, how he interacted with people.
Our purpose was to determine did he act alone; probability doesn't answer anything with 100%, but with greater probability he acted alone or the probability that he acted with others. We were able to come to a conclusion that was, looking at all the evidence, the interviews, the crime scene material, and what the victim was able to tell us, that there was a greater probability that he would act alone because of his personality type.
So that was interesting not just because of the case but the question that we were looking at was a question that you aren't as a psychologist frequently asked.
How much does your approach change from case to case?
The principles are always the same. It’s how they come together that is always fascinating because just like "the deadly mix", the study I did with police officers and violent encounters, the result is the police officer was killed or a police officer is injured, or a police officer walks away without being injured and successfully apprehends the criminal.
The process is always the same we look at the offender, we look at the officer, we look at the circumstances that brought them together, but the dynamic is that it constantly changes. There is this very interesting dance that goes on. There is this power struggle. Then the law enforcement where you're looking at the deadly mix, the police officer is in charge and hopefully, the police officer... thinks of it in terms of many circles where the police officer circles large as it begins and we hope what happens at the end it's still larger than the circle of the offender but sometimes, because of the circumstances, the officer might lose control and it might be as simple as, in one case the officers said to me, "He didn’t look like a threat, he was only a 22-year-old offender, he looked like he was probably 17 and he was thin, loose clothing, he didn’t look in the officer’s mind like a threat. But very quickly, the offender pulled out a gun and shot the officer as the officer approached him. So, you know, you can see where these dynamics change dramatically and very quickly.
I think for psychologist and for law enforcement it is so vitally important because it shows how in seconds a situation can escalate, de-escalate, re-escalate. The offender could be hurt, the officer could be hurt or in similar circumstances, because of something that’s either perceived by the officer or perceived by the offender, nothing happens. You know if you think of it in terms of perception, if the offender sees an officer approach and the offender thinks, “This officer could take me, I’m not gonna take a chance,” nothing might happen. But if in a similar set of circumstances the offender says: “I could take him and this is gonna be my third offense, if I get locked up I’m going to prison” and so, he acts on that perception that he thinks he could take the officer and yet the circumstances might be very much the same but the perception of the offender is what drives the action and in fact drives the escalation.
That is really interesting. Sounds like forensic psychology is a very intense interesting subject. I can understand why so many students get interested in it.
Yeah, unfortunately a lot of students get interested in it, I think for the wrong reasons. They get interested in it because of their perception, the perception of what forensic psychology is as produced by Hollywood. I have yet to solve a crime as a forensic psychologist. Yet they do it on TV all the time and then I have yet to be involved in a case that’s been solved within an hour.
The other thing is in Hollywood they suggest that we have either much more, either psychological insight or gadgetry that we use to solve these problems than we actually have.
How accurate is the typical television portrayal of forensic psychology? Is it anything close to real life?
For the most part, I don’t think it is. I think for the most part what they do is they take a case and rather than present the case as it actually is, they take several cases and they take the most interesting and sensational aspects from each case and develop this collage. That’s what Silence of the Lamb was. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ never existed, I mean that story, I enjoyed it. I sat there and you know I tried to figure out who’s doing it, what they were doing, but it’s all fantasy. The most interesting thing about it is there are pieces of several cases that they took and put together in a very interesting way and then presented it in a nice story. I think they did a marvelous job but it’s not reality. Hollywood is not reality.
When I go to the movies, I go to the movies to be entertained not to learn.
So, I was entertained by it.
In the 20 years that you worked in law enforcement and with the FBI was there any point when the graphic nature of the job became overly stressful or mentally draining?
It’s difficult to answer that question because I think I’m very psycho-analytic with my training and the application of psychology. I use a lot of principles of psycho analytic theory and there’s a lot of splitting that goes on in many professions including mine. If splitting didn’t occur where we split the effect from the cognitions, I don’t think most people could do their jobs. Personally I don’t know how pediatric surgeons do it. How do you operate on this cute little baby? How do you cut them up? Wow. Unless you’re able to remove the effect and go in and say , "What an interesting case, let’s look at this Aorta that we need to," whatever they do to it. That kind of splitting I think is the same thing that we do in certain thinking.
I do, in my work when I look at a case, I look at it from a very, very cognitive perspective, what’s difficult is in order, as I said before, to understand the etymology and to understand what the offender did, you really have to get into the emotion. What did the person feel, what did the person think, why did the person act the way the person did. So the splitting can only protect you so much, after a while, yes,it does take its toll and I think that’s where supervision is important and I’ve had supervision all my life.
I talk to other psychologists, for me that’s where spiritual direction is so important. I do have a spiritual director and I talk to him every at least 4-6 weeks just to keep things in perspective. Because after a while, you know, I’m trying to detect deception from everyone. Looking at pupil dilation, looking at how people turn their body or heads as they are talking to me. I mean these are things that I’m trained as forensic psychologist to observe in interviews and interrogations. What I have to be careful of is not, well I don't really have to be careful because it’s so intense. It takes a lot of energy to do that and I try not to do that with other people.
But the emotional part as you ask, the emotional part does take it's toll after a while of seeing, especially things that deal with children, the elderly and animals. Because these are people, who shouldn’t have to be protected. This is innocent children, the animals, the elderly; it’s because of all their hard-working lives that we have what we have. You know here they are now not able to protect themselves and are taken advantage of. When the children who are babies, infants, little children, who are just the epitome of innocence and their hurt and taken advantage of. Animal abuse, I’m a big dog lover, I’ve had dogs all my life. I always said "More dogs, fewer people, better world." Dogs are wonderful companions. Animals, pets, they’re wonderful companions that bring out the best in us. You know, they are the gift God gave us to show how much he loves us. They’re just tremendous. And when people hurt animals, abuse animals, especially in domestic violence cases where a spouse will threaten or actually injure a family pet in order to control the wife or the children, these are difficult things to deal with. Not just to see it but then to know what effect that stuff has on the victims, how can you not be affected by these things? You have to be affected by that stuff, but what we try to do is, and I think through supervision through spiritual direction we’re able to talk about that and deal with it. So that it doesn’t have as much of a toll. I think it’s a mistake to say,"Oh I can deal with it because it’s a part of the job". I know it’s part of the job but it’s also very emotionally draining. Then part of it too though, part of it is as Freud said, "If we’re good at what we do, we don’t choose our profession, our profession chooses us". So, we have sort of a built-in ability to deal with some of this stuff because we have the ability to engage in this kind of splitting. Look at it as, " Gee, what an interesting case". That’s the combination of factors that get me through.
I mean these are things that you just have to perform and I think by stressing the cognitive aspect and what it is that we need to do by analyzing the situation allows us to hold our emotions in check. But eventually, if we don’t deal with them, eventually it does take its toll on most of us.
What are some of the goals a student should strive for if they hope to become a forensic psychologist?
I think there are couples of things. One, forensic psychology is of course the combination of law and psychology. Depending on what area you want to work in and specialize, you should have some practical experience in that arena. Not just the academics of forensic psychology but a good working appreciation of that area. So for example, if you want to work in applying principles of psychology to law enforcement, you should either have a law enforcement background or spend time with law enforcement to understand the law enforcement mentality and the tools that law enforcement has and how to use those tools appropriately. So that when you’re applying the information, you’re applying it in an accurate kind of way. The other thing, no matter what area of psychology that one goes into I think what we stress today is evidence-based procedures and evident-based treatment so if you’re getting into this field, particularly on the doctor level, you should have a very good background in statistics and research, Methodologies.
The reasons for that is relatively apparent, there’s a lot of research that’s out there that’s simply not good and to read an article in a non critical way, you’re simply accepting the results in their discussion. You’ll have to be able to look at that methodology section and say that this is good solid research and I can apply or generalize the results. But if you don’t understand research methodology and you don’t have the grasp for statistics and you’re looking through that document, quite honestly many students skip over the methodology section, cause its boring, well it is. But that’s the meat, that tells you, how this research is done and whether you can apply these findings to what you’re doing and if you don’t have a good grasp of that, then I don’t think you're being a good science practitioner and that’s what we need more of. We need people who are good practitioners but they also have a good base in science.
How competitive is it for aspiring students to enter the field of law enforcement as a forensic psychologist?
It’s much more competitive now than when I got in. I don’t know if I’d get in now if I tried to. There was so few of us years ago. 30 years ago when I got into this we knew each other by name, I mean there were very few forensic psychologist running around the country and we all knew each other. Now when I go to these workshops or conventions I don’t know anybody who is there. There are just so many people in the field and I pick up these journals I don’t even know the names anymore. Their doing wonderful work though, really wonderful work. So the answer to the question is it’s a lot more difficult now because there are so many students and there are so many programs that are out there. I mean there are online programs now, we never had such a thing before. So, I think that’s why for the students, the student has to not only be a forensic psychologist but recognize that he or she needs to develop an area that he or she is more knowledgeable in than the other forensic psychologists. You know, I don’t do child custody cases. There are a lot of things I don’t do that are under the area of forensic psychology. I only do certain things that I’ve been trained for and that I have experience in, and that I have researched. I think now more than ever what these young forensic psychologist need to do is identify those areas a lot earlier than we had two years ago.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing forensic psychology?
It’s a fascinating field and everyday I’m involved in forensic psychology it’s exciting to me. And I think whatever the person does, whether its forensic psychology, whether its journalism or its Italian cooking, if you’re not excited about what you’re doing, then I’d have to wonder well you know, why are you doing it? The field of forensic psychology, because you’re dealing with people and the interaction between and among people, no two cases are going to be alike, you know there might be burglary, there might be robberies, there might be homicides, but no two cases even if the offender is the same, no two cases are alike. What is just so fascinating for me is trying to understand the nuanced differences and that’s an exciting venture. Whenever you’re dealing with the human person or you’re dealing with biological pre-dispositions, dealing with psychological and emotional experiences the person had and all of these affect the person’s perceptions. Well, what we tried to do is to get into the psyche of the individual and try to understand that biology, that experience, the emotions, the psychology and that makes for a very exciting experience. So I hope there are more and more people who are interested in forensic science and forensic psychology but interested in it as a science not as this Hollywood production or this crystal ball.
It’s very hard work, but it’s exciting and it’s gratifying but at the end of the day oftentimes I don’t have answers. I have to be comfortable with being able to say to the police officer or district attorney or an assistant district attorney, "I don’t know." I don’t know if this person did this. I don’t know why this person did this. Or I have to be comfortable with saying you know this is very consistent with this kind of person, but I don’t know if this person did this. There are so so many times, especially judges who ask that ultimate question, is this person responsible for doing this, I can't answer that question, All I can say is I’m looking at behaviors and these behaviors are consistent with this type of person but I don’t know if this person did it. That’s what the judge decides, that’s what the jury decides. But so often the police want me to make that decision. The court wants me to make that decision, the prosecutor, the defense attorney want me to make that decision and I can’t or should I do that. The only thing I should do is talk about what I know scientifically.
What I usually say to the young forensic psychologist is.. be realistic in your hopes and expectations. Talk to people who really work in the field not the ones who say they did work in the field, but the ones who really do work in the field. Find out from them what they do and if it is something that excites you. Ask yourself, "Is this something that you can see yourself working on for 20 or 30 years?"