The practice of using police composite drawings has not changed much in the 125 years it has been used to help identify perpetrators of serious crimes. Though practitioners of forensic composite art are skilled, the craft is still inexact at best.
That’s not always a bad thing. Forensic art is not about creating something perfect or beautiful. Rather, it’s about developing evidence that was previously intangible.
“Forensic artists should never be judged by how close they got to the actual person-of-interest,” says Suzanne Lowe Birdwell, a forensic artist with the Texas Rangers Evidential Art and Facial Identification Unit in Austin. Instead, she says, the goal is for the composite drawings to induce recognition of the subjects in the drawings, not to create museum-quality portraits of the suspect.
“The main purpose of forensic art is to generate leads for investigators, and this is possible even if every part of the drawing does not end up 100 percent accurate,” Birdwell says. “Remember, the artists don’t know what they’re drawing.”
Although composite drawings have been in use since the late 1800s, there are still relatively few full-time positions available for forensic artists in domestic law enforcement agencies. There are approximately 35 to 40 forensic art units across the country, employing between 60 to 70 full-time forensic artists in local, state, and federal agencies, according to Birdwell. Some forensic artists provide services on a freelance basis, on a volunteer basis, or as part of their duties in a crime analyst position if they have artistic skill and have been trained in composite drawing.
Non-profit service groups also employ forensic artists. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, for instance, has a staff of four full-time forensic artists who age-progress available early photos of long-term missing kids. Occasionally, the Center’s artists also attempt to reconstruct facial features from skulls of deceased, unidentified children.
Regular forensic sketches are usually developed in a couple of hours, while the forensic artist interviews the victim or witness about what is likely the worst event they have ever experienced. For Birdwell, drawing for law enforcement is structured differently than normal “real” art, in that creativity is not used when making a sketch of a suspect. Forensic artists must suppress their creativity and develop the image based strictly on the results of the interview with the witness or the victim, according to descriptions and adjustments provided.
“The artists are also at the mercy of a myriad of situational factors that may negatively affect witness recollections, such as the timing, angle, and lighting at the crime scene,” she adds.
On top of that, the whole forensic art process is only successful if the composite sketch is published and is eventually seen by someone who believes they recognize the person in the sketch, and who then decides to come forward and volunteer information.
Nevertheless, Birdwell believes the value of forensic artistic images continues to grow, provided they are created by skilled, well-trained professionals, and developed in conjunction with a thorough interview of a witness/victim who maintains a reasonable memory of the event.
Let’s face it
Birdwell advises that the key to attaining a good likeness in the form of a composite drawing is to engage the witness or victim in a thorough interview.
“The composite drawing interviewing process is not like regular police interrogations,” she says. “[These] take a softer, lengthier approach, called a cognitive interview, which implores the witness to relax, enabling memory to flow more freely.”
Birdwell notes the best forensic art interviews encourage the use of the senses as the witness recalls details of the event in question, and the description of the suspect.
“The memories of witnesses are constantly being encoded through all of their senses, and although the artist’s goal is to develop a visual representation of the suspect via the victim’s memory, those memories may not have all been visual,” she says.