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Computer pictures city's criminals

Oak Harbor Detective Cedric Niiro works on a computer program called FACES that allows police to create digital composite images of crime suspects. - Jessie Stensland
Oak Harbor Detective Cedric Niiro works on a computer program called FACES that allows police to create digital composite images of crime suspects.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

Law enforcement have been using sketches to catch criminals since the days of Billy the Kid or even Robin Hood wanted posters.

Technology has finally caught up with the traditional sketch artists as even smaller-sized police departments across the country are turning to computerized composite programs.

While the programs available to the average department still have their limitations, Oak Harbor Detective Cedric Niiro said the one he is using can be a very useful tool. The department has a program called FACES, the Ultimate Composite Picture, which was donated to them by the 7-Eleven corporation.

Since the department no longer has a trained sketch artist on staff, the responsibility has fallen to Niiro and the computer program. While most of the crimes in the area are committed by people familiar to the victim, he said there is the occasional case — like a recent robbery — where a composite sketch is needed. He said he’s done about a half dozen composites of suspects in the last couple of years.

Niiro said he’s pretty happy with the digital results compared to the average hand-drawn sketch. “Unless you get a superb sketch artist,” he said, “which are hard to find and cost an enormous amount of money, it’s hard to get that life-like of an image.”

The Island County Sheriff’s Office, however, still relies on sketch artists who work with pencil and paper instead of a mouse. Jan Smith, the chief administrative deputy, said the office is lucky enough to have a couple of talented sketch artists to rely on.

Kaye Rider, a records clerk, has many years of experience in drawing composites, which has helped catch quite a few bad guys over the years. With nearly 12 years in the department, she has plenty of experience with interviewing and drawing.

Smith said a local and well-known portrait artist, Kathy Parks of Clinton, has also volunteered to do composite sketches for the department. She’s gone through extensive training in forensic questioning and composite drawing.

“We’re really luck to have them since out hands are tied when it comes to technology,” Smith said, explaining that the spread-out department doesn’t have speedy enough computer connections to send digital sketches between precincts.

But for Niiro, the computer program can work just as well. Most of the techniques for creating the composite sketch on the computer are very similar to the old-fashioned way — sans pencil. Like the artists, Niiro said he begins by pre-interviewing a witness about what they remember.

They’re called composite sketches because they are made up different individually-chosen features. Sketch artists usually have a book of facial features — like head or eye shape — from which the witness chooses. Likewise, Niiro’s FACES program has a large menu of each facial features. For example, there are 876 different eye shapes. There’s hundreds of different hair-dos, eyeglasses, facial hair and so on.

Once a feature is chosen, Niiro can plop it down onto the composite with the click of a mouse. Then he can adjust the face by stretching or moving around any feature. Unlike the traditional two-dimensional sketches, the digital image appears three-dimensional, thus a little more life-like.

The limitations of the program, Niiro said, are in what features can be chosen. In the recent robbery case, for example, witness Liz Gerber described a man wearing a hooded sweat shirt, but the program doesn’t have a hood image. Also, the program itself is four years old, so the haircuts and eyeglasses aren’t en vouge, so to speak.

Niiro said the program also can’t include really unique features, like scars or wacko tattoos.

According to Niiro, there’s better technology out there. The FBI and other federal agencies have state-of-the-art programs that can do a better job, but they are very expensive and require extensive training.

Niiro said the tight-budgeted department just doesn’t have those kinds of resources, but he expects the advances to gradually trickle down.

But no matter how advanced the technology or how the sketches are made, the most important element in getting an accurate composite sketch is the memory of the witness.

Niiro has practiced by creating composites of co-workers and famous people. He realizes it can be surprisingly difficult to describe how a person looks.

“Some people can do it,” he said, “and some people can’t and some people fall in the middle.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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