How police sketches work in a digital world

MADISON, Wisconsin (WMTV) – As cameras are positioned from the streets to front doorbells, criminal investigators are increasingly turning to technology as evidence.

But while electronics push us, law enforcement officials are clinging to a different kind of technique — one that relies on old-fashioned pencil and paper.

“I realized, ‘Okay, there are things I can do as a draftsman that some computer programs can’t, you know, that haven’t quite figured out yet,'” said Mitchell Ziolkowski, a trained forensic artist. He is currently a senior faculty member for the Criminal Justice program at Blackhawk Technical College.

Ziolkowski, also a part-time officer with the Evansville Police Department, can use his skills to create composite sketches, also known as drawings from memory.

“A composite sketch typically helps in cases involving an interaction between a suspect and a witness or victim that is so ‘significant … that those facial features and their composition on paper are so clear,'” Ziolkowski said.

Below are mock sketches Ziolkowski made based on photographs:

The process

Before he grabs his sketch pad, Ziolkowski first establishes a relationship with witnesses. He begins the interview by going through a list of questions about physical descriptions, from hair color and texture to complexion and age. He even asks for an “outstanding feature”.

He also points to books with hundreds of photos showing the different types of facial features. Eyebrows, for example, range from thin, heavy, groomed, and unkempt styles as listed on the pages.

Even after he has picked up the pen, Ziolkowski does not stop questioning the witnesses, but continues it and adjusts the drawing in the process. “If that needs changing, I can just delete that or just take that out, move that, add that,” he said.

“It might not look pretty, but when they say that person is like that, I’ll try my best to sketch it out the way they described it,” Ziolkowski said.

For Ziolkowski, the “success” of a sketch is measured by the process.

A sketch could lead to a suspect, he said, adding, “Perhaps during the interview process we got some additional details from talking to a victim or a witness that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

reason for the technique

Ziolkowski received his training in 2015 from Carrie Parks, an Idaho-based forensic artist. She and her husband, who previously worked at Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters, are instructors at Stuart Parks Forensic Associates. They spent more than 35 years teaching officers in thousands of police departments across the country.

“It absolutely works,” she said, referring to police sketches. Since most witnesses only remember four or five facial features, Parks said the art style was meant to be “sketchy.”

“It’s actually a very common thought among agencies when they’re like, ‘We’re just going to get this really photographic look,'” she said.

You don’t want a nice drawing. You want it to look sketchy. You want it to look like a pencil drawing so people have expectations that don’t aim for perfection.

Recent example in Madison

The Madison Police Department uses drawings from memory once or twice a year, Public Information Officer Steph Fryer said. Because of the accessibility of cameras, Fryer said the need for composite sketches has decreased.

Since no one in the department is certified as a forensic artist, MPD relies on state-based artists.

In one case last April, the department released the sketch of a stranger suspect of sexual assault. Fryer said Monday the suspect has still not been caught.

Officials say they will investigate any lead they receive about the case that may be filed through the Madison Area Crime Stoppers.

Past and future of forensic art

Instructor Carrie Parks explains the history of forensic art

Parks says hybrid sketching options are becoming increasingly popular. This means a tablet like an iPad can be used for faster drawing. Even with the internet, distance is not a problem. Parks says she searched as far away as England for witnesses.

“It changes, but that’s okay,” she said. “It’s part of the era we’re in now.”

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