Police Art: It’s Not For Everyone

“How do I become a police artist?” I’m asked this repeatedly. Being a forensic artist is indeed a curious career, with a lot of mystique attached to it when you’re looking at it from the outside. Some equate this job with being a psychic, which couldn’t be further from the truth. A television reporter declared that I was pulling on supernatural powers to aid me since my drawing looked so close to one suspect. I quickly corrected him, preferring to be labeled as “well trained.”

My police art training actually began back in the late 70s, when I was preparing to become a police officer. I had always liked law enforcement, so I pursued it after being bored to death after four years of working in retail.

I took a desk job with the local police department as a public service officer. It’s often the first step before going to the academy to become a commissioned officer. I worked the graveyard shift from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., and it was very slow at times. Lincoln, Nebraska, on Tuesday, in the middle of the night, was not a demanding city for the police.

composite sketch by Lee Hammond

A drawing of a suspect, and the mug shot after his capture.

Because art was always my first love, I was also taking a correspondence art course at the time. While some may laugh at that because I did “Draw Winky” out of a magazine and send it in, that course can now be thanked for the way I write my books today. Art Instruction Schools out of Minneapolis is still in operation and is one of the best art educations I’ve had (thank you!).

When times were slow at the police department, I did my homework assignments. Officers who came to the desk to check on warrants and records saw my work. Drawing is often a magical process for those who don’t do it, so I developed an audience. One very slow night, an officer decided to play a game with me. He said, “Let’s see if you could be a police artist, like the cops have back in LA and New York.” He proceeded to go through the mug photos. (Back then we didn’t have everything computerized like today.) He found the most unusual-looking person he could find. Believe me, in a mug file there’s no shortage of interesting characters. He started to describe him, and I attempted to draw. Much to our surprise, I came very close.

“Draw the Ugly Mug Shot” became our favorite game when it was slow. Everyone in the department wanted in on the act. It was uncanny how close I would get. After months of this, my lieutenant asked if I’d be interested in pursuing forensic art because he saw that I had a natural ability for it. I agreed, and the department sent me to a training program with Smith & Wesson, to learn the proper skills to be a trained police artist. What I learned was invaluable.

What I found out is that being a police artist is not about being an artist. Drawing ability is certainly a part of it, but not the biggest part. Most of it is a personality trait that you either have, or you don’t. I can teach anyone to draw a portrait, for example, but I couldn’t teach someone to be a police artist. While there are courses that people can take (Lois Gibson at the Houston Police Department offers a comprehensive course), that doesn’t mean they’d be able to do the job.

In addition to drawing well, a police artist must also be a good listener, an interviewer, a confidant, and a calm voice of reason. Your witness/victim will look to you as a safe place. You are the go-between. You don’t represent authority, but you’re a part of the law enforcement team and must be strong and respectable. When I work with people, I must be self confident, and provide them a place of personal security. They must trust me, for they’ll tell me things that they would never divulge to an officer. Working with rape victims for instance, it helps that I’m a sensitive female. Especially if their assailant happened to be somewhat attractive. (Not all criminals are ugly, you know.) A victim is much more likely to tell me about that detail, than they would tell a big, 6-foot-tall, burly police officer.

The first comment a witness will always tell me is: “I don’t think I can do this! I don’t remember that well.” That’s where I’m trained to ask certain questions, in a certain manner, to evoke memory. I also use facial identification catalogs for people to look through. They contain thousands of photos of different face shapes and characteristics. You may not remember someone precisely, but your brain will recognize it again when you see it. You might not be able to fully describe your own mother to me, but you will know her features when you see them on someone else. The composite drawings are built off of anything that jars the memory and looks familiar. When something looks familiar to a victim, I include it in the drawing. If it doesn’t look right to him/her, I take it out. It’s trial and error until it all comes together.

Every sketch artist has his/her own methods of procedure. It becomes personal. I’ve developed mine for over 30 years. Since so much of the sketch relies on the actual interview process, I often don’t even start to draw for the first hour. That gives the witness time to get to know me and relax. I often use relaxation/meditation techniques to calm a witness down, especially if the crime was traumatic. I was once mislabeled by the media as being a hypnotist, but I forced a retraction. While I have done some composites while a witness was under hypnosis by a trained therapist, I’m not trained to do it myself. I simply use methods of meditation to calm the mind, and make the process less stressful. All in all, it usually takes me 3 to 5 hours to complete the composite drawing.

It really helps to have some law enforcement experience going into this field. My time working at the police department and going on “ride alongs” with the officers gave me experience that I truly needed. They taught me a lot about the system and how they operate. I learned how to interview and interrogate witnesses properly, so they aren’t intimidated. Without my law enforcement background as a foundation, I don’t think it would have worked, because you become a part of a team. You have to work closely with the officers and detectives, and you have to know how to speak their language. You must know their system and procedures, and each department is different. Having law enforcement experience gives you credibility with them, for it isn’t an easy club to infiltrate.

drawing of hands

A drawing I did for my business cards.

Many believe that because some of my drawings get so close to looking like the criminal, that I’m drawing a portrait. A composite is never supposed to be a portrait of one individual. A composite is nothing more than a collection of facial characteristics designed to narrow the search for the officers. It creates a category to eliminate 95% of the public, so 5% can then be looked at more closely. By drawing a stalky, round faced, bald guy with a beard, we’ve then eliminated all the long haired, clean shaven, skinny, tall dudes. See what I mean? It’s merely a tool to place people into recognizable groups, so the officers can thin the herd of suspects, and narrow their search.

I’ve been told that there are only 200 to 300 active sketch artists in the whole world. That’s due to the unique personality and characteristics required to do this multi-faceted job. And the job has certainly changed over the years, due to the use of computers and video surveillance. Many of the individuals I would’ve been called in to draw are now captured on video surveillance tapes.

Also, officers are now trained to use computer composite software programs to create an image without the use of an actual artist. While I don’t believe that it’s as affective, it is useful–especially for smaller departments with no budget for outside help. Even a bad composite, like a very cartoony one that I saw publicized recently, acted as it should, by narrowing the field of suspects. Criticize it for its lack of realism if you’d like, but it still did its job. But only a hand-drawn composite can create certain identifying marks, such as tattoos or scars. I recently aided with the capture of a rapist based off of the unique tattoo he had on his chest. Another was identified by a burn scar he had on his wrist. I can also draw the shape of a broken tooth, or a unique piece of jewelry or an unusual hairstyle. These small, yet crucial identifiers can only be done through an artist, and are often the very things that get a person caught.

I'm holding a drawing of a little girl who couldn't be identified.  I drew her portrait from her autopsy photos.

I’m holding a drawing of a little girl who couldn’t be identified. I drew her portrait from her autopsy photos.

A police artist does more than just composite sketches and drawings. I also aid in the identification of dead bodies. While I don’t do the full reconstruction from skeletal remains (that’s a whole different science), I can recreate what a person would look like alive. Even if there has been decomposition, I can fill in the blanks. The photo shown here is a drawing I did of a little girl that had been murdered and decapitated. They tried everything, including the computer version and a sculpted version in a clay bust, to identify her but no one came forward. It wasn’t until I came in and drew her portrait off of her autopsy photos that she was then identified. Not many artists could tolerate such photos, for they were the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen in my career. But, there’s a part of me that’s able to shut off the emotions long enough to do the job. Not everyone was born with this “off switch,” and it’s necessary to have one to be in this line of work. You’ll see and hear things that nightmares are made of.

So, you can see my dilemma when people ask me why I don’t teach forensic art. I can teach the basics, such as anatomy. I’ve studied and can teach the differences in the facial structure of the many races and ethnic groups. I can teach anyone how to draw a realistic portrait. I find it interesting that a few of us composites artists you see on TV all resemble one another. We’re all similar in our characteristics and even our looks, for personality often accompanies physical characteristics. That’s why we have stereotypes (another thing I learned in my training). I’m in very good company, for all of these artists are all excellent at what they do. It’s a hard job, and not glamorous. They have my utmost respect. And, due to the sheer need, we’re all very busy.

I hope that this answers some of the questions you may have about forensic art. As you can see, I am passionate about it, and literally could go on and on. I have so many stories that I’m sure that someday I’ll write a book on the topic. But for now, I will move on to the next art question…

Thank you for your interest in what I do…

Until then, stay safe… (We’re out there making it a safer world for you!)
Lee

 


Lee Hammond has been called the Queen of Drawing. That may not be fair these days, since in addition to providing the best drawing lessons, she has also created fantastic books and videos filled with the same easy to follow acrylic painting techniques, colored pencil techniques and more. Click here to see all of the instructional books and DVDs that Lee Hammond has to offer!

Free download! Easy Acrylic Painting Techniques by Lee Hammond

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