Forensic artists: Identify the Culprit

In the most recent publication: Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, (2014, The National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001, 160 pages, ISBN 978-0-309-31059-8) they make eleven important recommendations to law enforcement on how to handle eyewitness memory. The list of contributors is a who’s who of eyewitness memory research and here’s a few of the names I’ve come to respect: Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, University of California Irvine; Roy S. Malpass, University of Texas at El Paso; Christian A. Meissner, Iowa State University; Steven Penrod, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Daniel L. Schacter, Harvard University; Barry Scheck, The Innocence Project; Gary L. Wells, Iowa State University; and John T. Wixted, University of California, San Diego. You should read the report if you are a: police officer; detective; prosecutor; defense attorney; commander of investigations; chief of police; victim advocate; sketch artist; or a student of forensic science.

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I have read the report and will read it several more times as I get inspired to write about working with eyewitnesses. I expect that law enforcement stakeholders will also read the report a few times and wonder as I have: why wasn't a forensic artist specifically mentioned when dealing with an eyewitness? I asked myself this same question when I read the seminal report: Strengthening Forensic Science in the US: A Path Forward, 2009. In that report they covered many of the forensic disciplines, but failed to cover forensic art as a valued resource for agencies around the country. Could this have been an omission of ignorance on both reports? When I read the list of contributors for both reports I don't recognize the name of any respected forensic artist serving on the committee. Surely someone in the group stumbled upon agencies stating that they utilize a forensic artist every week as they engage with eyewitnesses of crimes. Forensic artists work with the same eyewitnesses that these reports suggest should be scrutinized for their statements to police, and for their identifications in court.

Forensic artists have played a key role in accessing the memory of eyewitness to create sketches that represent that recollection. They meet daily with eyewitnesses of robberies; burglaries; sexual assaults; and engage in careful collaboration to retrieve the faces of the culprits. The conditions in which these eyewitnesses view their crimes and proceed through the investigative process have been difficult for researchers to duplicate. In the report: Identifying the Culprit, they expand on the findings of eyewitness misidentification research and urge police agencies to deliver this information to all of their officers. I agree with this idea and believe that forensic artists could be the master instructors in charge of teaching these officers about the basic research on vision and memory.

More importantly the committee should encourage the researchers in eyewitness memory to work with established forensic artists to bring about findings that will establish best practices for sketch artists interviewing these eyewitnesses. Law enforcement managers need to understand the complexities of eyewitness memory and should scrutinize their procedures for the retrieval and recollection exercises conducted by their investigative bureaus. Reports like these will go along way to bring about discussion in utilizing highly skilled forensic artists to work with eyewitnesses. Forensic artists should look at their own interview procedures and see how well they adhere to these recommendations.