Forensic sketch art: dying off as technology takes over

A forensic sketch artist is a trained individual who interviews witness from a crime scene or the victims themselves in order to gather information about the physical appearance of the offender, after which he proceeds to draw his portrait.  These portraits have often been invaluable to law enforcement efforts worldwide, helping identify hardened criminals and putting them to justice before they had the chance to commit yet another crime.

During the past few years however, the skill and art of forensic sketch artists has slowly, but steadily been replaced by technology in the form of 3D face recognition software and the likes. Today, only 200 forensic sketch artists remain the in US, of these just a handful are employed on a permanent basis.

Facial software programs such as “Identi-Kit Solutions” and “Faces 4.0.” have a database filled with thousands of patterns, facial types, clothing, hair style and so on, that it makes it easy almost for anyone with no art background to come up with a sketch of the individual breaking the law. Critics, however, argue that these softwares are flawed and prone to error – far from accurate.  Lois Gibson, a sketch artist long employed by the Houston Police Department, said the software isn’t as detailed or accurate and can impede interview techniques a trained artist employs to help a witness remember.

“I’ve had it where the crook liked (the sketch) so much they later gave it to him to hang in his cell,” Gibson said, who along her career has helped in the apprehension or identification of 1,266 people.

Paul Wright, president and owner of the Arizona-based Identi-Kit Solutions, said the company’s software is used by as many as 1,000 police agencies and criminal justice education programs nationwide.

The hands-on artist is “irreplaceable,” he said — but computer software is the next best thing.

“The key is that every single feature can be modified, resized, removed, or pulled horizontally to change the way it looks,” Wright said. “It really does have quite a bit of horsepower and is pretty limitless for what it can do.”

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