The pillars of forensic art

You often hear, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. In this case, “a sketch is worth a thousand words.” The sketch is a composite sketch created by a forensic artist (sketch artist, composite artist, or police artist; they are all
synonymous). You may think think that all composite sketches are created in the same manner by credentialed forensic artists. You would be wrong with that assumption. The next blog entries are intended to introduce you to some aspects about the field of forensic art and introduce you to the variety of sketching techniques used by sketch artists working with police departments.

Follow me as I introduce you to what I believe are the pillars of forensic art: The application of Art; the Psychology of the interview; and the exercise of Collaboration with law enforcement. Let’s start with the methodology that forensic artists use to create the sketches. There are three distinct methodologies in use today: Standard and
Advanced Methodology and the Compositure Methodology. The standard methodology was designed by the FBI to help agencies develop composite sketches when they had no access to a highly experienced forensic artist. The advanced methodology was developed by Tom Macris after attending the FBI Composite Course in 1986. The Compositure™ methodology was developed by me in 1996 after studying and applying the Advanced Methodology for three years. When I attended the FBI Composite Art Course in 1993 I was surprised when the lead instructor, Horace
Heafner (the creator of the FBI method), asked me to share with the class the technique Tom and I were using at San Jose. He told the class to spend the rest of the week picking my brain about our “new” technique and challenged them to move past the instruction we were getting. As I went through the course I couldn’t help but think that the standard methodology (SM) relied heavily on collaborating with the eyewitness (EW) to generate a sketch from a set of images in the FBI Facial Identification Catalog. The significant difference between the Standard Methodology(SM) and the Advanced Methodology(AM) was how the reference images were used in the sketch interview session. For instance, in the SM the EW is asked to look through the catalog of faces at the beginning of the interview process. The EW spends several minutes going through the catalog and writing down the feature ID numbers on the FBI Facial Identification Fact Sheet. The forensic artist (FA) reviews the information and then draws the sketch based on these ID numbers. Many times the FA will guide the the EW through the feature types and offer suggestions about which ones to choose. This is considered a rapport building technique as well as a method to gather information. It is always expected that the EW will be able to complete the thirteen sections of the form. Each
section has a space for the ID number and then a multiple choice section that narrows the description even further.

The process is very rudimentary and the complete recall of the suspects’ face is expected by the EW. In contrast, the Advanced Methodology (AM) has the FA ask the EW basic questions about the suspect’s face as the sketch is being drawn (without reference images). After a complete rough sketch is completed of the suspect’s
face the EW is introduced to the reference images (old booking photos) and is advised to locate the faces that remind them of the suspect (for example the hair, eyes, face type, etc). In the AM technique you ask for at least three but no more than 4 reference images to review. You take these images and then refine the rough sketch before you - out of the view of the EW. You then show the EW the sketch after you apply some of the refinements from the reference images -- thus allowing them to make changes to the sketch. Tom’s reasons for not using the catalog at the beginning of the sketch interview was because he felt there would be contamination of the EW’s memory. He also felt that the FBI Facial Identification Catalog wasn’t diversified enough and lacked contemporary hair styles and facial hair treatments. Tom showed me the FBI catalog that he received from his attendance in 1986 -- it was the same printed version I had from 1993. I remember telling my colleagues at the FBI Composite Art Course of the three binders Tom had amassed with booking photos of wide age ranges and countless racial types. Some of these photos were in bright color while others were clearly of an older and faded color scheme. What you saw in these photos was the
distinctive emotions that could be translated to the affect of the sketched suspect. In both methodologies it was encouraged to build rapport and be mindful of the state of mind of the victim/witness. Part of my apprenticeship was to learn about the latest findings in memory recall and mastering the cognitive interview. Tom was well aware of the work by Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus (Eyewitness Testimony, 1979), regarding memory recall. The dangers of contaminating the memory of the EW resonated throughout my training. I studied and applied the basic principles of the Cognitive Interview (Fisher & Geiselman, 1992) technique in my monitored sketch sessions. 

Tom retired in 1995 and I started my career as the police artist. During a sketch interview, the EW ran across a reference image that, she wondered, might be the suspect. She eventually decided it was not, but we used the image anyway because she said it could have been his twin. I remember completing the sketch and having some doubt about the process. I began to debate the merits of using any reference images at all. That’s when I ran into more research by Dr. Gary L. Wells. He wrote an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978, Vol. 36, No. 12, 1546 - 1557 about the research in eyewitness testimony. The article spoke about the experiments conducted by researchers before him and how they were being applied to the justice system. This article gave me an opportunity to look at my interaction with the eyewitness and I decided to make some changes to my process. And so, in the summer of 1996 I decided to eliminate the use of reference images altogether. I called my technique: Compositure™

To be a Compositure™ forensic artist, you must: 1. Be a highly skilled artist that can draw a human face without the aid of reference images. 2. Be mindful of rapport and conduct an interview without asking any leading questions. 3. Be mindful of the fragility of memory.

There are obviously many other aspects to the Compositure™ technique that make it successful. For instance, the questions that I ask the EW are the same in every interview and thus eliminates the appearance of bias. Multiple EW’s, children, elderly, non English speaking EW, all bring various adjustments to the process. The strength of this technique is that it is simple in philosophy and fully relies on the memory of the EW. There is no need to “coach” the EW to locate images that resemble the suspect. Either the EW remembers the suspect or they don’t. I’ve conducted over three thousand interviews in this methodology and about 99% of them led to a sketch. The ones that
didn’t were deemed to be “unreliable”.

I’ll talk more about my technique when we look at the Psychology of the Interview in my next article. If you have any questions, or comments, please email them to me.