How police sketches work in a digital world

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – As cameras go from the streets to the doorbell of homes, criminal investigators are increasingly turning to technology as clues.

But as electronics advance, law enforcement officers are sticking to a different technique — one that relies on old-fashioned pencil and paper.

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

Also a part-time officer with the Evansville Police Department, Ziolkowski can use his skills to create composite sketches, also known as memory drawings.

A composite sketch usually helps in cases where the interaction between the suspect and the witness or victim is so “significant … that these facial features and how they connect on paper are so clear,” Ziolkowski said.

Below are the sketches Ziolkowski made based on the photos:


Before going to the sketch pad, Ziolkowski first connects with the witnesses. He begins the interview by going through a list of questions about physical descriptions, from hair color and texture to face and age. He even asks about a “distinctive feature.”

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He also points to books that contain hundreds of photographs of various facial features. For example, eyebrows are thin, heavy, groomed and ungroomed as listed on the pages.

Even after taking the pencil, Ziolkovsky does not stop the questioning of the witness, but continues it and corrects the drawing as he goes. “If it needs to be changed, I can just delete it or just take it out, move it, add it,” he said.

“It might not look pretty, but if this person is what they say, I’m going to try to do it the way they described it,” Ziolkowski said.

For Ziolkowski, the “success” of a sketch is measured by the process.

The sketch can lead to a suspect, he said, adding: “We may have learned some additional details through the interview from the interview with the victim, from the interview with the witness, that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

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The reason for the technique

Ziolkowski studied in 2015. from Carrie Parks, an Idaho-based forensic artist. She and her husband, formerly of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters, are instructors at Stuart Parks Forensic Associates. They have spent more than 35 years training officers in thousands of police departments across the country.

“It totally works,” she said, referring to the police sketches. Since most eyewitnesses only remember four or five facial features, Parks said the art style should be “sketchy.”

“Actually, very often agencies think, ‘We’re just going to get a really photographic look,'” she said.

You don’t want a pretty drawing. You want it to look sketchy. You want it to look like a pencil so people have expectations that aren’t perfect.

A recent example in Madison

The Madison Police Department uses drafts once or twice a year, public information officer Steph Fryer said. Fryer said the availability of cameras has reduced the need for composite sketches.

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

In the case last April, the department released a sketch of an unidentified man suspected of sexual assault. Fryer said Monday that the suspect is still at large.

Authorities say they will investigate any tips they receive about the case, which can be submitted through Madison Area Crime Stoppers.

The past and future of forensic art

Instructor Carrie Parks explains the history of forensic art

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

“It’s changing, but that’s good,” she said. “It’s part of the age we live in now.”

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