Computer Composites a Better Aid Than Artists' Designs, Some Say
By Cherie Bell, The Dallas Morning News
A growing number of law enforcement agencies are turning from
artists' sketches to computer-generated images resembling color
snapshots as a tool for catching criminals.
"They're so real now that people pay close attention to them and help
us," Mesquite Police Chief Gary Westphal said of the color composites.
In Plano, police said they use similar computer software in
conjunction with sketches drawn by hand. The software is used to
enhance the quality of the sketches, said police spokesman Carl Duke.
"It makes the sketches a little more lifelike," he said.
The latest program used by Mesquite lets the witness to a crime
choose from catalogs of facial features such as ears, eyes, noses and
Investigator Jeffrey Abbott, the department's computer graphic
artist, said that seeing the features may jog a witness's memory.
Mesquite police say computerized composites have helped them
apprehend 150 to 200 suspects in crimes as serious as robbery and
Other area police departments that use computerized composites
include Fort Worth, Duncanville, Garland, Grand Prairie and Irving.
"Most will be turning to it as their budgets can afford it," said
James McLaughlin, executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs
Some prefer artists
Some of the area's largest law enforcement agencies aren't sold on
the computer-assisted systems. Dallas police officials, for example,
prefer sketch artists.
"We feel that using a live artist is better for us because the
computer systems put out a composite that appears more like a photo,"
said Senior Cpl. Diana Watts, public information officer. "We believe
the public will see this 'photo' and will expect the subject to look
exactly like the 'photo.'"
The Texas Department of Public Safety also has not switched to
The Garland department still has sketch artists but added a computer
program that allows for color almost a year ago.
"The investigators use it whenever possible, and it has become useful
in their efforts to solve their crimes," said Lt. Don Martin, public
Chief Westphal, a 30-year veteran of the Mesquite department, said
his officers used to rely on sketch artists.
"It was very difficult to do that because you were transferring
something from one person's mind to another," he said.
Through the years, the department purchased a kit with a series of
general, black-and-white overlays of facial features, "and we had
some pretty good luck with that," he said.
In the last decade, the Mesquite department started using
computer-aided composites, specifically comPhotofit in 1996. An
upgrade to color this year provided the capability to account for
variations in skin tone.
"Now we're able to change eye color, change face shape, age a
person," said Greg Given, forensics software specialist with Sirchie
Finger Print Laboratories Inc. of Youngsville, N.C., the designer and
manufacturer of the system.
Sirchie, which specializes in equipment for criminal investigations,
devised a computerized composite program in the 1980s using
photographs of people booked for crimes.
"These are actual mug shots," Mr. Given said.
Other computer composite systems are marketed by companies such as
ImageWare and InterQuest.
With a computer system, a witness to a crime looks through a catalog
of photographed facial features - categorized by eyes, nose, mouth
and other parts.
The ID process
In building a composite, Mesquite's Investigator Abbott first asks a
witness to recall hairline, skin and hair color. Matching photos from
the catalog are used to start the composite. Other features are added
later, ending with details such as eyes and nose as the witness
recognizes them in the catalogs.
"That's the part they don't remember," Investigator Abbott said.
A special pad and pen are used to smooth the composite pieces into a
Police can run the facial attributes of an unknown criminal through
the Texas Department of Public Safety driver's license photos for a
match and possible suspect, Investigator Abbott said.
The computerized composite can be altered to look like a simple
sketch if witnesses provide a general description.
One advantage of the system is that it requires only a few hours of
training and no artistic talent.
"I couldn't draw a nose if I had to," Investigator Abbott said.