Publicity of police sketch more important than accuracy

Are we really helping police solve a crime when we publish a crude drawing of the face of a violent crime suspect as described by a distraught victim or momentary witness?

Turns out, maybe so, but not for the reason you would think.

For, it’s not that the rough drawing you often see in the paper of a suspect still at large is such a realistic depiction. It doesn’t have to be. What’s important is that it helps focus your attention and solicit your involvement.

Of course, it would be nice if somehow witnesses could perfectly transfer an image from their memories to the pen of a police sketch artist (or, as is often the case, to the fixed set of facial characteristics computers can use to build a composite image). But the greater value of the sketch, investigators often will say, lies in less tangible, but still critical, features of crime solving — notably helping to deepen the participation of victims in the investigation, building awareness in the minds of the public to attract potentially helpful clues and, especially, sharing information with other police agencies to broaden the network of resources capable of identifying a suspect.

One of the most renowned cases in which a police sketch helped lead to an arrest involved the investigation of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Within hours, police had traced the vehicle used in the bombing to a truck rental agency in Junction City, Kansas, and an FBI forensic artist built a sketch based on interviews there. Police showed the sketch around town and found a motel owner who immediately identified the person as Timothy McVeigh, who happened to have just been arrested elsewhere on unrelated charges and was being kept in jail by officers who also had seen the sketch. A wealth of additional evidence developed, and McVeigh and two other men were charged and convicted.

The sketch of the suspect who turned out to be McVeigh is an impressive likeness, but you’d have to admit it is probably also an impressive likeness of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other oval-faced, short-haired, thin-lipped young men. Along those lines, I started thinking about this subject as I was reflecting on the remarkable sophistication of a police sketch we published Tuesday of a man suspected of attacking a woman on the Prairie Path near Wheaton. By Wednesday, a suspect had been arrested, and we published his picture in Thursday’s editions. The similarities between the two images are undeniable, but the same can be said for the sketch and another police mug shot we also published Wednesday, that of former “Bachelor” star Chris Soules, arrested on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal traffic accident.

In other words, the sketch alone probably did not solve the Prairie Path case. The 2006 blue Toyota Sienna minivan linked to the assault probably had more to do with leading police to the suspect than the police drawing, But the drawing still played an important role. A crude reconstruction may not by itself be enough to nab a criminal, but when it is publicized, it attracts attention, leads to more clues and can surely help narrow the field of suspects.

Indeed, it has been doing so ever since French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon first began keeping track of the physical characteristics of Parisian prisoners nearly 140 years ago. Almost immediately, police began using Bertillon’s work to solve hundreds of crimes, and a useful investigative tool was born.

It is a classic example of an inexact science, but with our help and yours, a nonetheless effective one.

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