Computer composites gaining on sketch artists

Law enforcement has been using sketches to catch criminals since the days when Billy the Kid was on wanted posters.

Recently, technology has caught up with the sketch artists law enforcement has traditionally used, as agencies across the country turn to computerized composite programs.

While the programs available to the average department still have their limitations, Oak Harbor Detective Cedric Niiro said the one he uses now is a powerful tool. Called FACES, the Ultimate Composite Picture, the program is up and running at OHPD thanks to a donation from 7-Eleven Corp.

Without a trained sketch artist on staff, the responsibility of coming up with composites has fallen to Niiro and the computer program. While most crimes are committed by people familiar to the victim, Niiro said there is the occasional case in which a composite sketch is needed. He's done about a half dozen composites of suspects in the last couple of years.

Niiro said he's pretty happy with the digital results compared to the average hand-drawn sketch.

"Unless you get a superb sketch artist, which are hard to find and cost an enormous amount of money, it's hard to get that lifelike of an image," he said.

The Island County Sheriff's Office, however, still relies on sketch artists who work with pencil and paper instead of a mouse. Jan Smith, the chief administrative deputy, said the office is lucky enough to have a couple of talented sketch artists to rely on. Their sketches cost the agency a few tens of dollars apiece.

Kaye Rider, a records clerk, has many years of experience in drawing composites, and has helped catch a number of criminals in 12 years with the office.

Smith said a Clinton portrait artist, Kathy Parks-Chambers, also does composite sketches for the department.

"We're really luck to have them since our hands are tied when it comes to technology," Smith said.

But for Niiro, the computer program can work as well. Most of the techniques for creating the composite sketch on the computer are similar to the old-fashioned way, minus the pencil. Like the artists, Niiro begins by interviewing a witness about what they remember.

They're called composite sketches because they are made up of separate individually chosen features. Sketch artists usually have a book of facial features from which the witness chooses. Likewise, the FACES program has a large menu of facial features. For example, there are 876 eye shapes and hundreds of hair-dos, eyeglasses, facial hair and so on.

Once a feature is chosen, Niiro can plop it onto the composite with the click of a mouse. Then it can adjust the face by stretching or moving around any feature. Unlike traditional two-dimensional sketches, the digital image appears three-dimensional, thus more lifelike.

The limitations of the program, Niiro said, are in what features can be chosen. In a recent robbery case, a witness described a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt, but the program doesn't have a hood image.

There is better technology out there. The FBI and other federal agencies have state-of-the-art programs that do a better job. But they are expensive and require extensive training.

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