Putting a face on crime

St. Petersburg police officers are using computer-generated images to capture descriptions given by witnesses.

By Leanora Minai
The St. Petersburg Times

This image shows how, with computer software, police create criminals'' composites. St. Petersburg is one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies using computer-generated images instead of artist sketches.

ST. PETERSBURG - Sgt. Dennis Simmons looked at the computer-generated picture and knew it resembled someone he had seen on the street.

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.

"It''s a great tool," St. Petersburg police Detective Libby Roeser says of the software. "A picture''s worth a thousand words."

Software such as FACES, the computer program St. Petersburg bought for $50, offer 4,000 or more features from which to create a face from witness descriptions.

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."

The first police sketch based on a witness account is thought to have been produced in England by Scotland Yard in the late 1800s for a murder case. In the 1970s and 1980s, police used a do-it-yourself kit, instructing witnesses to select facial features and manually piece together a criminal''s picture.

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."

Computer-generated images
Here are examples of composites on the left with their suspects on the right.
Sentenced to 30 years in prison
"The hair''s what got me the most. It stood out." -Karen Rose, robbery witness
Arrested on robbery charges
"It was a no-brainer once we saw that."
-Sgt. Dennis Simmons
Accused of strangling a man
"Libby did some extra work on her own. She put a better hairstyle on him, and we showed it again to the witness, and the witness said, ''That''s much better. That''s him.'' " -Detective Cindy Leedy

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