COMPUTER PROGRAM MAY BE THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE, BUT RIGHT NOW IT'S NOT AS GOOD AS A TALENTED SKETCH ARTIST, MADISON POLICE SAYWisconsin State Journal -- When Madison police used a computer to generate a sketch of a serial rapist, he came out looking Asian or Hispanic, instead of like a white man with dirty blond hair and ice-blue eyes. So they returned to officer Phil Yahnke's black-and-white composite sketch, which he drew in about 90 minutes as victims and witnesses made suggestions. Yahnke's sketch was more accurate, the victims and witnesses said. ''As versatile as the computer is and as effortless as these software programs are, the computer really can't give the finished drawing a humanness, if you will,'' Yahnke said. ''Even the best of these software programs turn out portraits that look rather like mannequins.'' A self-described frustrated cartoonist, Yahnke is a full-time patrol officer, who puts his art talent to work when the department needs to tell the public what a criminal looks like. Last year, he took a three-week course in forensic facial imaging at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. ''It was a mecca for street cops like me,'' Yahnke said. The computer program, called Faces, the Ultimate Composite Picture, was donated to the Madison Police Department in the fall of 1998 by a Quebec firm, InterQuest Inc. The serial rapist composite was Faces' first use by Madison police. ''They found some drawbacks in the computer-generated sketch. You can't control for the color of skin tone, and light and dark contrast is problematic,'' department spokesman Dave Gouran said. ''The color of his hair and skin was much darker than the reality.'' InterQuest said an updated version of Faces due out in October will correct that failing. The company introduced its first Faces program in 1998 by donating about 50,000 copies to police agencies across North America, including Madison. ''It was a problem with the first version,'' InterQuest vice president Sylvie LaRiviere said. ''We found a way around it. You will be able to make hair (and eyes) very light, gray or very dark.'' The original version permitted creation of 1 billion face combinations from a selection of 4,000 features, LaRiviere said. The update, which will cost about $ 50, permits an ''infinite'' number of faces, from a selection of 10,000 features. It also will let the user create scars and even pimples, she said. But can it replace Yahnke or any police artist who may come along after he retires in 10 or 12 years? No, police say. ''I like a drawing better. It gives us a truer representation of what a person looks like,'' said Pia Kinney James, an investigator who works in the police identification lab. ''We're probably using the computer program mainly for enhancement purposes.'' After investigators returned to Yahnke's black-and-white sketch of the serial rapist, they scanned it through other computer equipment that ''colorized'' it, reflecting the skin tone, hair and eye color that victims and witnesses remembered. The finished product shows the still-at-large rapist's dirty blond hair and cold blue eyes, beneath a blue baseball cap. That image now is plastered in stores and shops throughout southeastern Wisconsin, but the man remains free. He is believed responsible for two rapes at knifepoint and 10 other attempts or sex-related incidents at shopping malls, shops and nearby parking lots in Madison and Monona since Feb. 2. He also may be linked to sexual assaults at malls in the Janesville and Appleton areas, police said. Since detective Rudy Jergovic's recent retirement, Yahnke is the department's only forensic artist capable of drawing detailed composite sketches that fit the memory of a victim or a witness. Yahnke, 45, knows of no younger officers in the department with a flair for art. ''I'm certainly keeping my eye out, because I'd like to groom them before I leave,'' he said. ''I think a computer is a little depersonalizing. I just persist in believing there's something better about an image prepared by a human being, rather than a collection of microchips.'' Milwaukee police use a composite sketch software program called Identi-kit 2000, put out by Smith & Wesson. ''We've had a lot of success with it, but it's not as good as a real, expert drawing, because there's no limitations to what you can draw,'' said Lt. Bill Joers of the Milwaukee Police sensitive crimes unit. Milwaukee police have no choice but to use the program, however, because they don't have an officer-artist on their staff. ''Years ago, the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department had a sketch artist we would borrow, but (that person) left or retired,'' Joers said. ''Really good sketch artists are far and few between.'' Milwaukee began using Identi-kit in 1997. ''The original program was like a dinosaur compared to the updated versions,'' Joers said. ''You need someone to work with the program consistently, to get expertise at it.'' Identi-kit did prove a real boon last year, when Milwaukee police were tracking a suspect in a series of rapes and kidnappings. ''He was picked up on the West Coast and two of our detectives went out and laid the computer sketch out in front of him,'' Joers said. ''He blurts out, 'Man, she really got a good look at me,' and gave a full confession.'' Milwaukee police are looking, however, for even better composite sketch software, he said. ''There's some newer models out there and we're going to research them. Some states on the East Coast are going all digital,'' Joers said, referring to the use of digital cameras, rather than film, for taking booking photos of suspects and inmates. The advantage, he said, is that the image can be instantly transmitted to other police agencies, so police can quickly realize, for example, that someone they picked up for loitering is wanted elsewhere for armed robbery. Faces composites also can be transmitted as high-quality digital images to any police agency in the world, LaRiviere said, making it easy to compare a composite sketch of a wanted man with stored digital images of current and past inmates elsewhere. While Madison police weren't favorably impressed with the serial rapist sketch generated by their first attempt at using the computer drawing program, they expect more expert results with continued practice. ''Like anything else, it's easy once you get to know the program,'' Sgt. Jim Wheeler said.