Capturing suspects

Computer sketches aid Sheriff's Office

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 12:31 a.m.
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Detective Joseph G. Branaman of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office shows a demonstration composite sketch he did Thursday afternoon.

TRISTAN MAHER/ Special to The Gainesville Sun
Imagine trying to create a photograph of a friend using torn-up photos of other people's eyes, noses, mouths, chins and hair.
That's similar to what detectives do several times a month when they put together composite images of suspects - only the people being sketched are not friends, but those suspected of committing bank robberies, sexual assaults and the like.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office has a new computer system that helps detectives create those images - which look almost like photographs - with greater ease.
Getting that image out to the public and to other law enforcement agencies often means there's a better chance of capture, Detective Joseph Branaman said.
The new system, called Comphotofit-color II, has dozens of choices for every facial feature, including the eyes, forehead, hair, chin, nose and mouth. And those features can be widened, narrowed, shaped and colored.
The detective presents the choices for each feature on a computer screen, and the victim chooses which feature looks most like the criminal. The feature appears on the computer screen. Each time the victim chooses a feature, it's added onto the composite.
After all the features are added, additional work may be needed to change dimensions or color.
Despite the improved technology, the process of coming up with a strong composite is always a challenge, particularly when dealing with the victim of a crime.
Detectives try to get composite images almost immediately after a crime is reported so the victim remembers as much as possible. But sometimes victims are too upset to recall the suspect, Branaman said.
"You've got to be real patient," he said.
Detectives are trained on the system through a 40-minute video, but practice is the key to improving, Branaman said.
"A lot of it is sitting down and playing with it and practicing on people," he said.
In the past, the Sheriff's Office had a composite artist to do the sketches. Victims had to come to the Sheriff's Office and describe the victim to the artist, who drew the suspect.
A few years ago, the artist traded her pen for a computer. And when she left the Sheriff's Office a couple months ago, officials decided to get a new, user-friendly system, Branaman said.
The system allows anybody- not just a trained artist- to use it. It also allows detectives to make a composite image at the scene of a crime on a laptop computer so that a victim can do it sooner and doesn't have to make a separate trip to the Sheriff's Office.
But the technology is not yet widespread, according to a 2001 nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies.
More than half- 55 percent- of local police departments don't use digitalized composite images, according to a survey done by RAND, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes scientific, educational, and charitable purposes. About a third of local police departments make limited use of digitalized composite images and 14 percent use it often.
Two-thirds of state police, which often serve a larger population, reported limited use of digitalized composite imaging.
Cost was the reason most often given for not using computerized composite imaging, according to the survey. The software can cost into the thousands of dollars. Training and effectiveness were other concerns.
Using computer composite sketching programs without an artist behind the mouse pad may result in lower quality sketches, said Michael Deal, a pen-and-paper composite artist and deputy chief of investigations at the Altamonte Springs Police Department.
"I think that the computer's product is only as good as the user and the material that's put into the computer database," Deal said. "The computer person may be limited in features. An artist is unlimited in what he can draw."
A lot of software companies are selling composite imaging programs touting their easy use, but art ability helps, Deal said.
"I would argue an artist could do a better job on a computer program than any old person," Deal said. "They understand proportions and how things go on a face. You need to understand that. The computer's not going to draw for you."
Composite artists usually attend a 40-hour class on basic composite drawing, said Deal, who took that class and another class in forensic art, along with a three-week school on forensic art offered by the FBI.
But because there are very few agencies that have full-time composite artists - one or two in Florida- artists are usually also police officers, Deal said.
Deal, who has been a police officer for 21 years, became a composite artist after his police chief noticed he had artistic ability and sent him to a composite art class.
But while the computer programs may be gaining in popularity, Deal said he thinks there will always be composite artists. Artists may choose to use computers for their speed and efficiency, he said.
"I don't think one's going to replace the other," Deal said. "I think there's room for both."
Kathy Ciotola can be reached at 338-3109 or ciotolk@

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