Forensic Psychologist

Anthony J. Pinizzotto, PhD
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Intense controversy currently surrounds the Roman Catholic priesthood in America. Allegations of recent wrongdoing by members of the FBI have brought into question by some their fidelity, bravery and integrity (the FBI creed). Occasional stories of psychologists abusing patients or making fraudulent insurance claims have made front-page tabloids. And so as a Roman Catholic priest who works for the FBI as a forensic psychologist, when I’m asked, “What do you do for a living?” some may wonder why I don’t say something like, “I’m a greeter at the local discount store.” And yet, the combination of these three professions makes for an interesting, enjoyable, educational and fulfilling workday!

Admittedly, if someone had told me thirty-five years ago when I entered the seminary that I would eventually be working as a forensic psychologist in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), it would have strained even my faith. As a young seminarian with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in moral theology, I would not have anticipated the next thirty-five years would result in having worked in uniform with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., receiving a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC, a PhD in psychology from Georgetown University and completing an internship at Bellevue Hospital. There must be something to the adage, “Being at the right place at the right time.”

In some ways, though, it seems like a perfect fit: an examination of what the evil men, women and children do from a theological, psychological and legal perspective. It becomes even more interesting when the prism through which I view the world combines the Christian humanism of St. Francis deSales, the patron of my Religious order, and the determinism of Sigmund Freud, the psychological orientation I’ve adopted. The resultant hybrid is something of a BioPsychoSocioSpiritual perspective: basically good people making choices within given and set parameters. Some of those choices turn out to have wonderful effects on themselves and others; some of those choices turn out to be pretty awful ones that have catastrophic effects on others.

My current position in the FBI is Senior Scientist and Forensic Psychologist within the BSU. My responsibilities include liaison among academic, professional and criminal justice agencies, and the scientific exploration and investigation within the FBI’s Training Division. The mission of the BSU is threefold: Teaching, Research and Case Consultation. My teaching responsibilities include classes entitled Clinical Forensic Psychology, and Violent Behavior: A BioPsychoSocial Perspective. The students in these classes form the National Academy at the FBI’s Training Academy in Quantico, Va., an eleven-week course of studies for sworn law enforcement officers from around the world.

Since my entrance on duty with the FBI in 1988, I have researched various areas of law enforcement safety. This research resulted in a number of articles, training guides and publications including Killed in the Line of Duty and In the Line of Fire.

Within the last several years, I’ve assisted in developing a program entitled “The Use of Deadly Force in Law Enforcement.” This three-day seminar was established to assist Assistant United States Attorneys review the use of deadly force incidents by members of law enforcement. My particular training segments include threat assessment, perceptions of the officer and of the offender in the use of deadly force encounters, and sensory distortions involved in critical incidents. Most recently, I have served as a consultant and trainer in the United States Attorney General’s “Firearms Interdiction Program” which is designed to assist local law enforcement in removing firearms from criminals on the streets of our country.

The world changed on 9/11. The study and investigation of terrorism have been introduced into every unit and on every level within the FBI. This includes the BSU. As a result of these endeavors to understand the mind of the terrorist, our unit has been working with various components of the American Psychological Association (APA) and with individual psychologists with varying areas of expertise. In cooperation with the APA and with the support of the University of Pennsylvania, the BSU sponsored a conference in February of 2002 entitled “Countering Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory.” This conference brought together leading academics and expert practitioners in such fields as social psychology, forensic psychology and human factors, with various law enforcement agencies. The BSU continues to work closely with the APA and is considering a second conference on aspects of terrorism as they relate to the first responders within the law enforcement community.

Serving on the editorial boards for Criminal Justice and Behavior: An International Journal and for the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, I am able to keep up with some of the latest developments within the criminal justice literature. In addition to teaching, research and case consultation, I’ve lectured throughout the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom on topics regarding law enforcement safety, criminal investigative psychology, personality assessment, hate-related crimes and deviant social groups.

My original focus in forensic psychology, since the publication of my dissertation in 1988, has been on the application of principles of psychology to crime scenes and the subsequent interview and interrogation of the offender. This led to the interest and eventual practice of investigative or forensic hypnosis.

Stationed at a Catholic parish in the Quantico, Va. area affords me the opportunity to serve a community as a priest. It is, after all, this part of my life that helps to give a healthy perspective to some pretty strange experiences. It doesn’t always offer answers “to the evil men do,” but it does help to cope with the effects of that evil. Although I could never have pictured myself in this position some thirty-five years ago, it’s difficult to think of doing anything other than this…all of this!


(Originally published in the Convention 2003 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)