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December 31, 2013

Amid technology, police still drawn to the sketch

As two women walked into a wooded area in late October, a man followed them. He sexually assaulted one and robbed them both at gunpoint. Minutes later and yards away, he did it again, robbing a group of three teenagers near Northwestern High School in Prince George's County, Md., and sexually assaulting a teenage girl.

With no cameras to record the crime in Chillum and few leads, police turned to a seemingly anachronistic investigative tool — the composite sketch.

Police crime analyst and forensic artist Joyce Conlon spent nearly four hours with each of the assault victims, piecing together their memories to produce a picture of a suspect. The result: a black-and-white sketch of a man with a square head, long ears and a gaunt face. Two months later, a suspect was caught in Montgomery County, thanks in part to Conlon's sketch.

"There's not always going to be a camera," Conlon said. "Until we start getting to [an] age where computers are everywhere and Big Brother is watching you, for now the sketch artist is watching you."

In a world saturated with surveillance videos, cellphone cameras and other recording devices that can capture crimes in real time, many police departments across the country still rely on the composite sketch to help solve crimes. And while many police departments have cut back on traditional paper-and-pencil sketches as newer technologies emerge, local forensic artists and police detectives are fighting to make sure hand-drawn sketches don't die out as an investigative tool.

Indeed, many local police officials insist composite sketches are still important to the crime-fighting process when newer technologies can't help. They offer their services to neighboring law enforcement agencies that can't afford a police artist. They invest in training with agencies such as the FBI to improve their skills. And they give regular presentations to detectives within their own departments, pitching composites as an option when they're stumped on certain cases.

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