The art of forensics: How police sketches work in a digital world

The art of forensics: How police sketches work in a digital world

Updated: 1 month, 28 days, 20 hours, 43 minutes, 29 seconds ago

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - As cameras position themselves from the streets to home doorbells, criminal investigators have increasingly turned to technology as evidence.

But as electronics move us forward, law enforcement officials stand by another kind of technique-- one that relies on old-fashioned pencil and paper.

“I realized, ‘Okay, there’s things that I can do as a sketch artist that some computer programs quite can’t, you know, haven’t quite figured out yet,’” said Mitchell Ziolkowski, a trained forensic artist. He is currently a lead faculty member for the criminal justice studies program at Blackhawk Technical College.

Also a part-time officer at the Evansville Police Department, Ziolkowski can use his skills to create composite sketches, also called 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 these facial features and putting them together on paper are so clear,” Ziolkowski said.

Below are mock sketches Ziolkowski did based off photographs:

The process

Before he goes for the sketchpad, Ziolkowski first builds rapport with witnesses. He starts the interview by going through a list of questions about physical descriptions, from hair color and texture to complexion and age. He even asks about a most “outstanding feature.”

He also refers to books containing hundreds of photos showing the various kinds of facial features. Eyebrows, for example, range from thin, heavy, groomed and ungroomed styles as listed across the pages.

Even after he picks up the pencil, Ziolkowski does not stop the witness interview but continues it and adjusts the drawing as he goes. “If this needs to be changed, I can just erase or simply take this out, move this, add that,” he said.

“It might not look pretty, but if it’s what they say this person is like, I’m going to try my best to sketch it to what they described,” Ziolkowski said.

To Ziolkowski, “success” in a sketch is measured by the process.

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

Reason for the technique

Ziolkowski got his training in 2015 from Carrie Parks, an Idaho-based forensic artist. She and her husband, who previously worked at the 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 around the nation.

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

“It’s actually a very common thought with agencies if they think, ‘We’ll just get this really photographic look,’” she said.

You don’t want a beautiful drawing. You want it to look sketchy. You want it to look like a pencil drawing so that people have expectations that are not 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. Due to the accessibility of cameras, Fryer said the need for composite sketches have gone down.

With no one in the department certified as a forensic artist, MPD relies on artists from the state.

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

Officers say they will investigate any tip they get on the case, which can be submitted via the Madison Area Crime Stoppers.

The past and future of forensic art

Instructor Carrie Parks explains history of forensic art

Parks says hybrid sketching options are growing more popular. This means a tablet, like an iPad, can be used to draw faster. Also with the internet, distance is not a problem. Parks says she has sketched for witnesses in places as far as England.

“It’s changing, but that’s fine,” she said. “That’s part of the age that we’re in now.”

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