I was working the counter of our small pizzeria, and the dinner rush had just subsided. An art director by day, I helped my husband with the store in the evening. He was busily hand-tossing pies while drivers ran in and out with deliveries. In all, a normal weeknight in a small, family run business — until the guy walked in with a gun and said, “OK, lady, give me all the money.”
The robber got away, and I was unharmed, but after calling 911, I walked into the store’s tiny office, locked the door, and burst into tears. Then I got angry. I grabbed a piece of printer paper and started to sketch my assailant’s face.
Putting a face to the robbery felt like a natural reaction at the time, and yet using sketch artists to solve crimes is a practice falling by the wayside. Major cities’ police departments have dramatically scaled back their budgets for forensic artists in recent years.
A 2013 list compiled by the sheriffs’ offices in Broward County, Fla., and Los Angeles found only 40 full-time forensic artists and 105 part-time or contract artists working nationwide. In Philadelphia, the police department’s graphic arts unit only produced 14 sketches in 2012, The New York Times reported last year.
(The New York Police Department, by comparison, is one exception to this trend. Its three-person Artist Unit produced nearly 300 sketches in 2012. Its rate for solving homicides is also above the national average.)
Budget cuts on both the state and local level are often to blame, with many law enforcement agencies opting to buy less expensive face composite software rather than absorb the salary of a full-time sketch artist. Time also plays a role — working with a forensic artist can take several hours or longer, and in an open investigation the first 24 hours are critical.
But there are also many in law enforcement who simply believe that a victim’s memory often proves unreliable, increasing the risk that the resulting sketch will be inaccurate.
That skepticism, however, appears unfounded. In fact, evidence suggests that not only do sketch artists lead to more crimes being solved, but that the process can also prove cathartic for the victim.
For a forensic artist, success is based on getting a “hit,” the identification or apprehension of a criminal based upon their sketch. An extensive research study by professors from the United Kingdom and Arizona State University demonstrated that sketches by forensic artists were recognized and identified at a higher percentage — 8 percent compared with 3 percent — than computer composite sketches.
That may be because computer software’s preset options offer victims only limited features to choose from. “I would compare it to the difference between taking a multiple choice test versus an essay exam,” explained Michelle Hinojosa, investigative specialist and forensic artist with the Richardson, Texas, police department. “[The software] might result in frustration in not being able to capture the suspect’s features adequately.”
An artist is not only more accurate, but also brings the human element of listening, observing, expression, and collaboration into the experience. As in many kinds of art therapy, producing a visual element — an image — can be healing.
“After the sketch is completed, the victim can feel that what they have witnessed has been sufficiently captured on paper and they can attempt to make a clean start,” Hinojosa said. “I hope they feel relieved that some action is being taken to find the suspect.”
I know that I felt that satisfaction. My sketch led to the identification of the man who robbed our pizzeria, and he was taken into custody. I had gotten a hit.
Jana C. Perez is a graphic designer and an associate professor of visual arts at Texas Woman’s University.