Collaboration and Compositure®

Working with the detectives that use the cognitive sketch to generate important leads is crucial to helping identify the perpetrator.  If detectives understand the sketch interview process then they can bring confidence to utilizing the sketch information to bring about important leads.  I have always advocated inviting the detective to sit in on a sketch interview.  When the police department understands the advantages of having a forensic artist part of the investigation team, it strengthens their resources to generate leads and identify suspects.

Having a collaborative relationship between the forensic artist and the police detective can bring about successful investigations and make the interview process for the eyewitness a positive one.  If police agencies and district attorneys educate themselves on the finer details about the forensic art process, they can work more efficiently in their respective corners of criminal law.  I was fortunate enough to work for an agency that employed a police artist that was at the forefront of forensic art in 1986.  The agency gave great autonomy to this position and I benefited greatly from it.  I also think that the investigators and the community at large was exposed to the power of forensic art and they grew accustomed to the success.  Sadly, that is not the case for many areas across the country.  Many agencies are lacking the expertise of an experienced forensic artist to help solve their “who-dunnit” cases.  Many agencies find themselves less than qualified to select an entry-level forensic artist and more importantly the resources to build a forensic art unit.  Still everyday we see sketches published in the media that may cause some negative reactions and/or reduce the effectiveness of the resource.  And yet, more importantly, is anyone asking: what methodology was used to create the cognitive sketch?  Did the eyewitness say the sketch resembled the suspect? 

Misidentification research and the changes that follow

Maybe some police agencies and district attorneys' offices' should consider the recent procedural changes suggested by organizations like the Innocence Project regarding photo-lineups and apply them to forensic art.  The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing.  The research conducted by eyewitness memory experts like, Wells, and Loftus, helped to shed some light on the fact that eyewitness memory was considered unreliable in certain circumstances.  Their research revealed that police procedures in showing photo-lineups might cause some negative outcomes.  Take a look at this remarkable experiment by Dr. Wells. (Go to the experiment page here)  Experiments like these prompted many agencies across the country to implement eyewitness identification reform.  These changes were based on years of research behind memory recall and recognition studies.  I believe that these studies have something to say to forensic artists and LE agencies across the country. I've spent the last 18 years reading them and applying their findings to my forensic art methodology. 

Can we look at forensic art with a critical eye?

Forensic artists meet with and interview eyewitnesses everyday.  These eyewitnesses are innocent victims or witnesses of a crime at the right time at the wrong place.  Just as the photo line-up procedures have been scrutinized for causing false identifications, I believe that the sketch interview techniques (used by forensic artists) should be scrutinized to reassure the law enforcement agencies and the criminal courts that the resulting sketch is based on the best practices.  If research on the administration of photo-lineups shows how unreliable the memory can be, how can we rely on the eyewitness to be more reliable if we show them hundreds of facial features before we start sketching?  I believe the day is coming when forensic science institutions will look at these interview procedures and begin the work to define them and offer better solutions to reduce the risk of eyewitness misidentifications.

I believe that more has to be done in order to educate law enforcement agencies about the role that a forensic artist can offer to an investigative bureau.  I also believe that criminal defense attorneys, DA’s and judges, can benefit from informative workshops on the use of cognitive sketches.  Although composite sketches are being published to the jury in criminal courts throughout the US on a daily basis, I believe that forensic art groups need to address bringing about real data to help build a case for building forensic art units in every major police agency.  Finally, just as photo line-up procedures have changed to accept misidentification research, forensic art needs to accept some of these findings and embrace new directions.

Sadly, forensic art was left off of the seminal report by the National Academy of Sciences: Forensic Science - The Path Forward (2009). I have asked the question, why would forensic art be left out of such a comprehensive forensic science report?  Only time will tell if this was reaction by law enforcement or whether this was a call to action to practicing forensic artists to be more accountable and meet the threshold for being a part of the next report.  I believe that forensic art needs to establish itself as a viable resource to law enforcement agencies and bring about a defined standard of best practices that withstands scrutiny and is receptive to changes in memory recall research.  I also believe that forensic artists should work with academic memory recall researchers in helping them legitimatize their findings with actual cases instead of choreographed crime scenes with eyewitnesses earning college credits as an incentive.  Finally, I would love to work with a university and study the effectiveness of the different methodologies and begin to gather real data for all to review and comment.