By Lynh Bui
The Washington Post
— As two women walked into a wooded area in late October, a man followed them. He sexually assaulted one and robbed them both at gunpoint. Minutes later and yards away, he did it again, robbing a group of three teenagers near Northwestern High School in Prince George's County, Md., and sexually assaulting a teenage girl.
With no cameras to record the crime in Chillum and few leads, police turned to a seemingly anachronistic investigative tool — the composite sketch.
Police crime analyst and forensic artist Joyce Conlon spent nearly four hours with each of the assault victims, piecing together their memories to produce a picture of a suspect. The result: a black-and-white sketch of a man with a square head, long ears and a gaunt face. Two months later, a suspect was caught in Montgomery County, thanks in part to Conlon's sketch.
"There's not always going to be a camera," Conlon said. "Until we start getting to [an] age where computers are everywhere and Big Brother is watching you, for now the sketch artist is watching you."
In a world saturated with surveillance videos, cellphone cameras and other recording devices that can capture crimes in real time, many police departments across the country still rely on the composite sketch to help solve crimes. And while many police departments have cut back on traditional paper-and-pencil sketches as newer technologies emerge, local forensic artists and police detectives are fighting to make sure hand-drawn sketches don't die out as an investigative tool.
Indeed, many local police officials insist composite sketches are still important to the crime-fighting process when newer technologies can't help. They offer their services to neighboring law enforcement agencies that can't afford a police artist. They invest in training with agencies such as the FBI to improve their skills. And they give regular presentations to detectives within their own departments, pitching composites as an option when they're stumped on certain cases.
They're keeping the practice alive because, they say, the sketches still pay off.
For sure, surveillance video and cameras become even more powerful when combined with the skills of a police artist, said Sgt. Jerry Manley of Prince George's police.
In one recent case, officers had video of a man suspected of beating and robbing a 71-year-old man who ended up in a coma. Conlon produced a sketch with the 71-year-old when he awoke, and detectives peppered the area where the crime occurred looking for leads.
Investigators received several calls saying the person in the sketch looked like an employee of a local Taco Bell. When police investigated, the Taco Bell employee's face was similar, but the body type was nothing like the 220-pound person they caught on camera. Combining the two investigative tools allowed detectives to eliminate a suspect and redirect their resources.
Detectives kept the composites up and got more calls that eventually turned into a solid lead.
"That picture isn't why we locked the guy up, but it generated the phone calls," Manley said.
Suzanne Lowe Birdwell, chair of the Forensic Art Subcommittee for the International Association for Identification, said although cameras often capture grainy or blurry images, they provide details on a suspect's clothing and body frame. Camera images matched with facial features offered up in composites make the two investigative tools even more powerful.
"The videos help prove up the crime, but they don't identify," said Birdwell, a forensic artist for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Other local police detectives say composite artists' familiarity with the anatomy of a face and their gentle interviewing touch make them invaluable.
"Technology and machinery is cold," said Wayne Promisel, a detective at the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and former Fairfax County police detective. "It is also missing the ability to ask the questions in a certain way in an interview while having a sense of compassion" for victims.
In some cases, police departments use sketch artists with an updated twist. John Dassoulas has been generating composite sketches for Montgomery County police for more than 20 years. But now he opts for composite-generating software, which allows officers and witnesses to select features from a database and piece together a single face. Dassoulas creates about 20 to 30 composites a year, half the demand from a decade ago.
Montgomery County detective Sgt. Robert Grims, who investigates aggravated assaults, robberies and other violent crimes, said he will keep using composites. Not only does he believe that they help, but he also doesn't want the resource to disappear.
"I don't envision it scaled back," said Grims, who has become a "bigger believer" in composites over his 17 years as a criminal investigator.
But forensic artist Michael Streed thinks more departments will follow the lead of the District, whose agency doesn't have a sketch artist at all, instead training officers to use software. Streed works for Baltimore city police and is a full-time forensic artist, one of only about 100 in the nation.
"The role of the police sketch artist will be greatly diminished over time through the use of an effective software solution and the proliferation of surveillance videos," said Streed, who has also developed the composite-generating software Sketch Cop.
There's no standard way for law enforcement agencies to calculate arrest and conviction rates that come with the help of the sketches. And many local composite artists couldn't say how many of their drawings actually helped close cases.
That's a problem, said John Watson, a journalism professor at American University who studies the ethics and effectiveness of composite sketches in the criminal justice system and the media. Inappropriate use of composites contributes to racial profiling, false arrests and wrongful convictions, critics say.
"There are a bunch of studies that explain in great detail why it doesn't work, but nothing has apparently persuaded people to stop using these things," Watson said.
In a 2008 study, Watson and two other researchers surveyed nearly 400 people who were asked to compare a set of 12 composites with 12 photos and say whether the sketch matched the person. About 30 percent of the respondents thought the sketch matched its corresponding photo. But, it turns out, all of the sketches depicted the person in the matching photo.
In his coming research, Watson will insist that police departments come up with a way to calculate how effective their artists are and develop a system to decide whether the benefits of composites outweigh the possible risks.
Conlon doesn't believe composites will die. She said she plans to hone her skills in the coming year, attending more training sessions and planning to earn a certification. She hopes her work leads to more closed cases, like the man suspected of attacking the woman and teen in Chillum.
The teenager remembered the dazed look and gaunt face of the man who attacked her, Conlon recalled. Conlon pieced the memories together.
After seeing the final image, the teenage victim "started to get freaked out," Conlon said. "Her reaction when she came back into the room, that is rewarding in a strange sort of way."