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More Police Using High-Tech Sketches

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 foreheads.

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 homicide.

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 Association.

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 computer-generated composites.

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 information officer.

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 natural-looking face.

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.

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