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December 09, 2003
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Cop brings out the faces of crime

Longtime Denver artist set to retire as departments depend more on computers

Armed only with a charcoal pencil and an eraser, Denver police Detective Paige Lyda can help catch a criminal.

He painstakingly goes over each portrait, adding contours here, removing lines there - widening eyes, narrowing a nose, changing an expression.

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The sketch changes minute to minute until it''s done.

"That''s what the eraser''s for," Lyda explained recently.

Over the past 20 years, Lyda has drawn about 400 sketches of people sought by police. And more often than not, he figures, the sketches are pretty close to real life.

"Some are pretty far off," Lyda acknowledged. "But some are right on, and that''s because the victim gave me the right description."

Lyda is nearing the end of his tenure as the Denver police sketch artist. And when he retires in February after nearly 35 years as a Denver cop, Lyda probably will be replaced by a computer.

Lyda knows he''s one of the few sketch artists around anywhere these days, and one of a handful in Colorado, as police departments go high tech to catch criminals.

Already, some Denver police units use computer renditions of suspects. Many Front Range cities, from Aurora to Fort Collins, have embraced the computer sketches as a cost-effective method that requires less formal training.

"Our technology teaches people who basically can''t draw a straight line to draw a detailed composite," said Bill Scigliano, chief executive of IQ Biometrix, a California-based company that makes the widely used FACES computer sketch system.

IQ Biometrix has shipped 160,000 copies of the FACES system throughout the world since its inception in 1995. Scigliano said his goal is to have 20 percent of all police officers trained to use the system. A small department can get the system for about $1,000, he said.

Many departments say they save time and money using the computers. Aurora police do not have a sketch artist on staff, but the crime lab uses the computer system to generate in-house composites, spokesman Rudy Herrera said.

Fort Collins police have found they can have many computer- trained officers rather than rely on a sketch artist.

"The coordination time is a lot faster," Fort Collins police spokeswoman Rita Davis said of the computer system. "That''s what we''ve been moving towards."

Yet it''s not a simple matter of man versus machine. Both have their advantages. Lyda and Scigliano each figure there''s room for both.

"Is there a place for sketch artists? Absolutely," Scigliano said. "We''re just another tool in the tool kit for officers."

The computer renderings can be done by police officers who lack formal artistic training. And the hand-drawn sketches still have a certain "something," Lyda said, a subtle shading and character that only an artist can depict.

"The computer looks too much like a photograph," he said. "I''m not saying the computer is bad, but a sketch is supposed to be a composite. It''s a general idea of what the person looks like so we can eliminate some suspects."

Lyda, meanwhile, said he supports the use of computers along with human sketch artists. He tried the computer himself and even attended a class on how to use it. It just didn''t take.

"It''s not me. I have to feel the paper," he said. "It''s not good or bad, it''s just the way I do it."

Some of the largest police departments in the country - New York, Los Angeles, San Diego - use the computer composite system daily. The FBI uses it in its training academy at Quantico, Va. And the television show "America''s Most Wanted" generates its composites on the computer.

FACES has had some remarkable success, according to the company.

The company touts the system as a tool in the fight against terrorism. Authorities in Bali used it to create composites after the deadly bombings there in 2002. New York officers assigned to counterterrorism detail are trained on the system.

The FACES system even includes a database of celebrities - from Michael Jackson to Robert Redford to Mohandas Gandhi - to help witnesses work off a recognizable face. The system can add color and skin shading and will soon have 3-D capabilities, Scigliano said.

While some departments use FACES to create several sketches a day, Lyda often draws three or four a month. He interviews witnesses and tries to capture their memories with his pencil.

"If they can picture it in their mind, I can get it on paper," he said.

Human sketch artists have helped in the arrest of many high- profile suspects. Serial killer Ted Bundy was identified with help of a sketch. Richard Allen Davis, who killed 12-year-old Polly Klaas, now sits on California''s death row because of a hand-drawn sketch. And the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was identified in part from the famous sketch showing a hooded man wearing sunglasses.

Lyda recently drew a sketch of a woman found buried this year in the Denver backyard of confessed serial killer Richard Paul White. Using an autopsy photo, bone structure and the coroner''s description, Lyda re-created her face on paper. He may never know how close he''s come.

A typical composite drawing takes about one hour. Lyda takes about 30 minutes to interview the victim or witness, then takes 30 minutes to draw. Sometimes, however, they can take hours, depending on the interview.

The interviews, he said, are the hardest part. Each one is personal and difficult. Often he speaks with frightened victims or intimidated witnesses. The details sometimes come out through a haze of tears.

The drawing comes naturally. Lyda majored in art in college, went to the FBI Academy and trained at Colorado State University and an art institute in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Yet, he said, the job is more about being a police officer than an artist. Lyda began his career as a police sketch artist in the early 1980s after 15 years of other duties with the department.

"There are a lot of artists out there a lot better than I am," he said. "The hard part is getting it from a person's description."

Scigliano said Lyda''s reputation as an artist is well-known.

Lyda now plans to pick up his real estate license after leaving the force. He jokes that he hopes to be tough to replace - by man or machine. Lyda figures he has helped solve his share of cases and fondly remembers one in which the suspect in court looked identical to his sketch.

"The judge told me, ''I can't believe you drew this before you saw him,"'' Lyda said. "I sure liked to hear that."



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