Blue Line


June 20, 2013  By Michael Streed

1101 words – MR

Trading pencils for pixels

Catching crooks one mouse click at a time

by Michael W. Streed


Each day, Canadian law enforcement faces policing challenges similar to those in other countries. Like many counterparts, they must evaluate and use the latest, most cost-effective methods to crack down on crime.

Over the years I have followed their methods for creating facial composites and find that many agencies have preferred working with a trained police composite artist. Though it seems to be a standard practice, it hasn’t always proven to be the best solution.

A lack of qualified artists has caused many Canadian investigators to turn towards a technology solution, using facial composite software to create suspect images. Both have proven to be effective solutions but law enforcement’s use of software remains greatly underutilized.

Increasing the use of facial composites would require a broader range of persons trained to create them. To effectively fight crime law enforcement needs timely intelligence that can be quickly disseminated. Having a cadre of trained technicians would help fulfill this need. Most agencies already employ computer savvy personnel with strong interviewing skills so using available technology would be an efficient, cost effective solution that would help relieve today’s strained police budgets.

For years, administrators have been led to believe that having a police composite artist was their best and only solution. However, few agencies can afford the luxury of employing a full-time police composite artist. In today’s economy, options that allow greater flexibility must be considered.

Traditional police composite sketch artists chafe at the suggestion that software can be as effective as their pencil because, for many years, poor quality programs made them the only option. Today, the quality of facial composite software has improved and become less expensive.

The process of training and developing personnel to become qualified composite sketch artists can take many years and cost thousands of dollars. Some agencies try a less expensive route by hiring civilian freelance artists on a per case basis. Though some volunteer their services for free, many charge a modest fee that can become quite expensive. More experienced artists command much higher fees.

A majority of today’s sketch artists already have law enforcement careers and calling them away to conduct sketch interviews can impact their duties. When they are unable to schedule a sketch during regular duty hours, they have to extend their workday and be compensated for overtime.

To avoid this conflict, agencies often train backup personnel – a costly solution that doesn’t always solve the problem. Also, if your composite artist retires, promotes or transfers, the costly process of identifying and training a replacement begins all over again.

Many agencies have taken these costs into account and shunned using a composite sketch artist, opting instead for facial composite software. With a variety to choose from, personnel can be trained for far less than the cost of training one traditional police sketch artist, allowing them to create a signature facial image for their agency that is of consistent high quality and can be easily shared across borders.

With trained operators available around the clock, agencies can respond to crime more quickly and disseminate the final image with greater speed. With proper training, non-artist software technicians have proven their value by assisting with the identification of criminal suspects.

Software technology has developed to the point where composite images can be imported into many of today’s popular photo/paint programs. This option allows the technician to make refinements rivaling the work of traditional police sketch artists, making it more difficult to argue that software is too limited in its ability to effectively create an image that satisfies eyewitnesses.

Before an agency begins investing in a facial composite software, there’s are a few things they should be aware of:

Image quality: Many facial composite programs have photographic databases, which often produce poor quality images. This causes confusion for people conditioned to seeing artist sketches and may cause them to believe they are seeing a mug shot of the actual suspect instead of an approximation of their appearance.

Also, except for isolated instances, color composite images are of little benefit. They are expensive to print and can be misleading. For a majority of cases, grayscale images work best.

Interview: The interview is a most important method for building a facial composite. Interviewing an eyewitness or crime victim can sometimes be a painstaking process taking several hours. The claim of creating a composite image in minutes is misleading because, regardless of the program, once an eyewitness is properly interviewed, the face build will come together quickly.

Training: Look for software that offers continued support and training, either online or on-site.

Costs: Prices can vary. The initial and continued investment is still cost effective, especially when compared to using a traditional sketch artist. The fact remains that more people can be trained to use software for less money. Also beware of companies who charge yearly maintenance fees. Don’t pay for what you’ve already bought.

As the art of creating facial composites evolves, many new police composite artists entering the field are embracing software technology as a viable alternative. They quickly realize that it can help them create more composites in less time than those they hand draw. This allows greater flexibility because they can still pursue something they are passionate about while minimizing the impact on their primary duties. Since the forensic art field involves many facets, there will always be a need for a properly trained forensic artist who spends the time to properly hone and diversify their skills.

Making the change to creating faces from pixels instead of pencils can be done quite easily. With careful planning and commitment, law enforcement agencies will begin realizing cost-saving results.

Continued training and technology investments will encourage increased use of facial composites. Law enforcement personnel who look forward to using these programs will lead to increased proficiency, not to mention the psychological first aid an image provides for victims of violent crime.

With careful planning and commitment, agencies will begin realizing cost-saving results. Continued training and technology investments will save you more money over time, with the increased opportunity to capture more crooks, closing cases much quicker and investing those savings in other crime fighting tools and technology.


Sgt. Michael W. Streed (Ret.) is an award-winning, internationally-recognized police sketch artist with 33 years experience with some of the largest, most diverse US police agencies, including LA and Baltimore police. A certified forensic artist and owner of SketchCop Solutions (, he consults and trains law enforcement in using facial composite imaging software.

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