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December 31, 2013

Amid technology, police still drawn to the sketch

(Continued)

In some cases, police departments use sketch artists with an updated twist. John Dassoulas has been generating composite sketches for Montgomery County police for more than 20 years. But now he opts for composite-generating software, which allows officers and witnesses to select features from a database and piece together a single face. Dassoulas creates about 20 to 30 composites a year, half the demand from a decade ago.

Montgomery County detective Sgt. Robert Grims, who investigates aggravated assaults, robberies and other violent crimes, said he will keep using composites. Not only does he believe that they help, but he also doesn't want the resource to disappear.

"I don't envision it scaled back," said Grims, who has become a "bigger believer" in composites over his 17 years as a criminal investigator.

But forensic artist Michael Streed thinks more departments will follow the lead of the District, whose agency doesn't have a sketch artist at all, instead training officers to use software. Streed works for Baltimore city police and is a full-time forensic artist, one of only about 100 in the nation.

"The role of the police sketch artist will be greatly diminished over time through the use of an effective software solution and the proliferation of surveillance videos," said Streed, who has also developed the composite-generating software Sketch Cop.

There's no standard way for law enforcement agencies to calculate arrest and conviction rates that come with the help of the sketches. And many local composite artists couldn't say how many of their drawings actually helped close cases.

That's a problem, said John Watson, a journalism professor at American University who studies the ethics and effectiveness of composite sketches in the criminal justice system and the media. Inappropriate use of composites contributes to racial profiling, false arrests and wrongful convictions, critics say.

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