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December 31, 2013

Amid technology, police still drawn to the sketch

(Continued)

They're keeping the practice alive because, they say, the sketches still pay off.

For sure, surveillance video and cameras become even more powerful when combined with the skills of a police artist, said Sgt. Jerry Manley of Prince George's police.

In one recent case, officers had video of a man suspected of beating and robbing a 71-year-old man who ended up in a coma. Conlon produced a sketch with the 71-year-old when he awoke, and detectives peppered the area where the crime occurred looking for leads.

Investigators received several calls saying the person in the sketch looked like an employee of a local Taco Bell. When police investigated, the Taco Bell employee's face was similar, but the body type was nothing like the 220-pound person they caught on camera. Combining the two investigative tools allowed detectives to eliminate a suspect and redirect their resources.

Detectives kept the composites up and got more calls that eventually turned into a solid lead.

"That picture isn't why we locked the guy up, but it generated the phone calls," Manley said.

Suzanne Lowe Birdwell, chair of the Forensic Art Subcommittee for the International Association for Identification, said although cameras often capture grainy or blurry images, they provide details on a suspect's clothing and body frame. Camera images matched with facial features offered up in composites make the two investigative tools even more powerful.

"The videos help prove up the crime, but they don't identify," said Birdwell, a forensic artist for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Other local police detectives say composite artists' familiarity with the anatomy of a face and their gentle interviewing touch make them invaluable.

"Technology and machinery is cold," said Wayne Promisel, a detective at the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and former Fairfax County police detective. "It is also missing the ability to ask the questions in a certain way in an interview while having a sense of compassion" for victims.

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