Relying on Software to Create Facial Composites

Some law enforcement agencies depend on computer software to create composites that allow them to pursue investigations.
by | January 18, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

In the TV show Bones, Angela Montenegro is a forensic artist -- a specialist in facial reconstruction, to be exact. She recreates an individual's face from their skeletal remains. The composites she creates are often done with with computer programs; the software takes scanned photos of various angles of the skull and stock images of facial features to create a fairly genuine representation of the person.

This isn't just some Hollywood magic created for a television show. Not many police departments have a full-time forensic artist -- in some, the demand just isn't there, and in others, shrinking budgets mean a lack of funds for such a position. So for strapped law enforcement agencies, computer software is becoming the answer. A yearly fee of $450 or one-time fee of $3,990, for example, gives a police department or sheriff's office access to thousands of facial features, hairstyles, tattoos and other identifying marks -- all of which are mixed and matched to create a composite.

Police departments nationwide have been moving in this direction for several years. Just ask Art Bohanan, a retired detective with the Knoxville, Tenn., Police Department (KPD). He now teaches forensics to law enforcement officers at a Department of Justice-sponsored AMBER Alert class.

When he was with the KPD, Bohanan says he created composites at least once a month -- he's never worked with a forensic artist. He's only used one type of composite software since 1977. Why? Because it's user friendly and easily creates a face to go with a description. "In a couple hours, I can teach you how to use it, and then you can go practice some and start working. It's that user friendly," he says, adding that he's created hundreds and hundreds of composites over his time as a detective -- and it's amazing how close some of them are to looking like the actual person.

"A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say, but a composite sketch is worth 800 -- it gives you something to work with," Bohanan says. "A white male, 5'8" with brown hair doesn't do a thing for you, but if you can put some type of face with it, then you can start looking for that person."

On the whole, Bohanan says investigators who use this tool must understand that it doesn't create a picture -- it creates a picture likeness: There's enough there to make you understand who that person is. "It may narrow you from 10,000 males in one town to five or six, and you can start looking from there," he says.

As Joel Currier reported in a recent story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many police departments in the St. Louis area use facial composite software, such as Identi-Kit and Faces 4.0. In Ann Arbor, Mich., the Police Department has been using ComPhotoFit composite software for the past 10 years, using it about three to four times per week, says Det. William Tucker. Though handy due to the lack of forensic artists in the area, Tucker says, creating an accurate composite in this way can be difficult: in a composite sketch released in June of 2009, police noted that, "His nose is narrower and cheeks are chubbier than depicted." This, Tucker says, happens occasionally for a few reasons.

First, the software Ann Arbor's police department uses isn't geared toward all types of faces, Tucker says. ComPhotoFit isn't a sketch program; it compiles actual photos of various foreheads, eyes, noses, mouths and chins. The user must capture photos to update the photo library, and because Ann Arbor police officials are busy with many other tasks, this doesn't happen. Second, what officers and witnesses see on the screen isn't what prints out, Tucker says. "That's one of the biggest complaints I'm getting from officers here now," he says. "Whatever they do on the screen -- the witness says, 'That's an 85 percent likeness of the guy I saw,' and you print it out -- it doesn't print the way it looks on the screen."

Tucker says that the software company told him it has something to do with the resolutions on the screens, and that its newest software version remedies the issue. "But we don't have that yet," Tucker says, adding that the department is looking into both the newer version of the software they already have and another program -- SketchCop Facette, which is used in various agencies in California, as well as a few in other states and localities.

Even Identi-Kit President Paul Wright notes that no computer software is the same as a great forensic artist. "Truly good police sketch artists who know what they're doing can make things on paper that we can't in the sense that it's infinitely variable, because you have a human being creating it," he says. "Our software, you can get very creative -- we have a library of over 1,000 features in it, and each feature can be shaded, rotated, scaled up and down, tugged left and right. However, I don't believe if given a choice between our tool and a very, very good sketch artist, that our tool would be preferred."

Places like the Broward Sheriff's Office (Broward County, Fla.) represent offices that use an artist instead of computer software. There, an artist sits down with a witness and has them choose different features from pictures. Those features are then assembled to create a whole face, and then modified according to the witness' memory, says agency forensic artist Catyana Sawyer. "When this is done with software, the library of images is limited so if the certain feature is not there -- a certain hairstyle, eyes, mole, etc. -- then the image is not accurate," she says. "You are also unable to make changes or alterations to the individual feature to tweak it, whereas if you have a skilled forensic artist, then any feature can be drawn and there are no limitations."

Also, depending on the software, Sawyer says, it can cost thousands of dollars, which doesn't always account for upgrades or training costs. Ultimately, the Broward Sheriff's Office does all hand drawn composite sketches without software. "Our post-mortem images and facial reconstructions are done by hand, but sometimes cleaned up with Photoshop by an artist," says Sawyer.

Ann Arbor's Tucker can deftly sum up the importance of being able to create a composite, whether by artist or by computer. "I think it helps to have a picture with anything," he says. "If you describe a person with a pockmarked face, and you draw at least an image so people can see basically what this individual looks like, at least it's a place to start." And now that computer software is increasingly helping law enforcement agencies create a face, getting that place to start may make their jobs easier.


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