Putting a face on crime
St. Petersburg police officers are using computer-generated images to capture descriptions given by witnesses.
By Leanora Minai
He laid the composite beside a real photograph of robbery suspect Hanh Van Nguyen and was amazed by the likeness.
"It was a no-brainer once we saw that," Simmons said. "We just started closing cases left and right."
With a click of a computer mouse, St. Petersburg police Detective Libby Roeser can construct lifelike, picture-quality composites of crime suspects that are more detailed than artists'' illustrations.
St. Petersburg is one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies replacing artist sketches with computer-generated images to capture descriptions given by witnesses.
FACES was used after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to distribute several composite pictures of Osama bin Laden, some showing him looking older, others without a beard.
"It''s a great tool," Roeser said. "A picture''s worth a thousand words."
Despite the advent of computer software in the 1980s and 1990s, some larger police departments are not sold on it. Tampa and Dallas, for example, don''t use computer-assisted programs. Artists sketch their suspects.
Dallas police Cpl. Diana Watts said computer-generated images could be limiting because they appear too much like a photograph.
"When the public sees what appears to be a photograph, they expect the subject to look just like that," Watts said.
Roeser said she found FACES on the America''s Most Wanted Web site in 2000. She uses FACES and another program, comPHOTOfit, which costs about $1,400.
Eighteen of the 54 composites produced by computer since 2001 have led to arrests.
At the computer, she starts with the shape of the head and then, with the witness or victim by her side, Roeser picks from a selection of photographs of facial features -- eyes, noses, mouths, chins -- and plugs those onto the face she''s building.
She can age a suspect by fusing lines. With other programs, she can add skin tone and scars. After each composite, which takes about 30 minutes to build, she asks the witness to rate the picture from one to 10. She aims for an eight or better.
"If I get five or below, I won''t even release the composite," Roeser said.
Recalling a suspect''s features can be daunting for a traumatized victim.
Karen Rose, a clerk at a Farm Store during a robbery in 2001, remembered the wavy salt and pepper hair of Richard K. Anderson, the man who demanded cash from her register. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
"I really didn''t stare at his face too long because I didn''t want him to get crazy on me," Rose said.
Rose gave the Anderson composite a nine rating.
A composite is only as good as a witness'' memory, said St. Petersburg homicide Detective Cindy Leedy. Last year, a computer composite helped close her case within two days. It led to the arrest of murder suspect William Haugabook, accused of strangling a man with a belt, stealing his car and trading it for crack.
"It brings in a lot more leads," Leedy said of composite pictures. "Sometimes, if the composite didn''t really look like the person, it can send us on some wild goose chases, but I wouldn''t give it up."
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