The police sketch has been an integral tool for criminal justice professionals since almost the dawn of the profession. Now, with the advent of high quality video surveillance paired with budget cutbacks for many police departments, some areas of the country are reporting lessened reliance on the police sketch.
According to Lt. John Rauchut of the Philadelphia Police Department Graphic Arts Unit, the number of police sketches fell from 147 ten years ago to just 14 last year. Yet in other areas of the country the art of the police sketch does not appear to be in any danger of decline. At the New York Police Department (NYPD) Artist Unit, three people dedicated to police sketches turn out hundreds of sketches every year, with 273 sketches recorded in 2012.
In fact, the practice of using police sketches to apprehend criminals is ingrained at the NYPD, as Phil T. Pulaski, the chief of detectives, has appended making a police sketch to the routine checklist for all investigations. That checklist also includes more modern criminal justice techniques such as searching the area for video cameras that may hold clues to a crime. According to Deputy Chief William Aubry of the NYPD’s Forensic Investigation Division, Chief Pulaski “is an advocate” of police sketches.
Since police sketches rely heavily on the recollections of those present at or involved with a crime, police sketches can sometimes be inaccurate. However, this may not be the fault of the sketch artists making the drawings but may be due to what has been called the inherent unreliability of witness testimony, which extends to false identifications from photographs and police lineups as well. This can create problems in apprehending suspects, since an unreliable police sketch may have concerned parties looking for someone who does not resemble the actual perpetrator – as happened spectacularly in New York late last year in the case of Salvatore Perrone.
Studies have found that later false identifications from photographs and lineups may potentially be reduced if eyewitnesses work with graphic artists in creating composites. New research also suggests that although human sketch artists do not have perfect accuracy, the results of police sketches executed by trained artists, estimated at 9% accuracy, are far better than those achieved by computer programs like E-FIT that walk through features with eyewitnesses to create composites.
When police sketches are accurate, especially when there is no surveillance video or other positive identification available, police sketches can be of immense help to law enforcement and victims. In a recent case that developed at the University of Florida, a repeat offender was positively identified by a police sketch, and his alleged involvement in a crime was confirmed by DNA evidence from a prior conviction, an example of old and new criminal justice techniques working in tandem.
As if to reiterate the value that the Artist Unit at the NYPD brings to the department as a whole, successful sketches are hung side by side with actual photos of apprehended offenders on a bulletin board in the office. These may serve as a reminder to detectives and others visiting the Artist Unit that although technology is changing, the police sketch remains a valuable tool for criminal investigators.