Police had little to go on the morning a man walked into a military recruiting office and jabbed scissors into an Air Force staff sergeant’s thigh, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Without strong witnesses or surveillance video, police leaned heavily on the victim’s memory. Detectives called on Mike Lewis, a forensic artist and crime scene investigator with the Illinois State Police, who dredged the recruiter’s memory for clues to produce a pencil sketch later distributed to the media. The classic police sketch as crime-solving tool may be yielding to technology in a time of nearly ubiquitous video surveillance and computer software that have made it easier for police to identify suspects faster. Departments facing shrinking budgets are reluctant to invest in a trade some say has ambiguous results. “We’re a dying breed,” Lewis said. “There’s a trend going away from the old-fashioned way and going to computer programs instead.”
Although it’s unclear exactly how many law enforcement agencies employ full-time forensic artists, the International Association for Identification has certified fewer than two dozen since 2004. Police say the field is tiny because demand for the composites remains low and because only the nation’s largest agencies have the resources – or enough cases – to make it worthwhile to employ a full-time forensic artist. Instead of using a forensic artist, many police departments now use facial composite software, such as Identi-Kit and Faces 4.0, which plug into online databases of facial features and hairstyles. The advantage is that almost anyone can produce a composite by mixing and matching those features with little training. Critics of the software say the programs fail to accurately depict someone’s face and cuts out the crucial interaction between artists and witnesses. “Computers are never going to replace the human element because there’s so much in the interview techniques that are equally important to the artistic ability,” said Bill Vize, a St. Louis police sergeant who has drawn sketches for years.