Report a crime, and police will quickly ask for a description of the perpetrator.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll meet with a forensic sketch artist, who will work with your mind’s eye to assemble a composite sketch of the criminal. It’s a process that’s been shown on hundreds of TV shows from Dragnet to CSI, and it’s helped bring down notable criminals like Timothy McVeigh and Derrick Todd Lee.
We wondered: How do those sketch artists get started, and do they do anything else? Are the TV depictions accurate? More importantly, how effective is the process?
To find out, we spoke with Lois Gibson, recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as the “World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist.” That’s not a minor achievement: Over the course of her 35-year career, her sketches have helped police catch more than 1,200 criminals. She has assisted in more than 1,000 convictions, and she’s taught entire classes on forensic artistry for up-and-coming artists.
In short, she’s one of the best forensic art specialists alive—and she’s exceptionally confident in her abilities.
“If you’re serious about investigating a case, and you have a witness … use a sketch artist. I am absolutely positive it increases your chances of catching people,” she tells Urbo. “I have done this for 35 years. I know what I’m talking about.”
Here, Gibson tells us some remarkable things about this poorly understood career.
A Deeply Personal Profession
Forensic artists get into the field for a variety of reasons, but they’re all passionate about their work. Gibson has a more personal connection than most of her contemporaries: She’s a survivor.
In 1971, Gibson was working as a model in Los Angeles when she was assaulted and almost lost her life. Soon after, she left the city.
“I moved to Houston, but I had done about 3,000 tourist portraits on the riverwalk in San Antonio, and I had also just gotten an art degree,” she says. “I would hear suspects vaguely described on the news as being 5’10” with brown hair and brown eyes.’ It was depressing, and it made me more depressed about what happened because I thought about the victim never getting justice.”
“Then it just hit me in a flash: I could draw a picture, and that would help.”
She quickly established connections with the Houston Police Department and discovered her talent as a forensic artist. Over the course of her career, Gibson has drawn more than 4,000 composite sketches, and she currently draws about 100 per year. She occasionally frames successful portraits that result in convictions, and she admits that she gets a rush when her work helps to identify a suspect.
“Oh, I’m vicious,” she says. “I want to get them all. It’s a never-ending well of desire and passion. I’ve been doing this 35 years, and every time I hear a new story, I go, ‘Let’s get that guy. Are you kidding, he had the nerve to do something around where I am?’ I never tone down on wanting to catch them.”
The Sketch’s Stigma
Studies have shown that eyewitnesses are unreliable in certain situations, especially when presented with suspect lineups (although accuracy has improved in recent years). Many prosecutors and police officers assume that forensic art is similarly ineffective; how could people remember the small details in faces after traumatic events?
“Your brain is designed for human facial recognition,” Gibson says. “You’re made to recognize faces like a hound dog is made to smell scents.”
Scientific research backs that up. Humans can almost effortlessly recognize faces after perceptual changes in perspective and lighting, and a 2011 study suggests that we develop our ability to recognize faces around age 5. While our memories aren’t picture perfect, they’re often accurate enough.
Forensic art is simply one aspect of an investigation, not a means of positively identifying a suspect. The goal of a sketch is to deputize the public—and Gibson says that it’s an extraordinarily effective method.
“I’ve had mothers and grandmothers call in family members. People who live and work with these [suspects], they’ll call them in,” she says. “Ninety nine percent of the time, police will find fruits of the crime, like DNA evidence, or the subject will confess, or they’ll have the same vehicle. There’s all this other evidence. It’s not just a face on a sketch.”
Sometimes, yes, sketches lead to the wrong guy: A 2013 Washington Post article noted a case where a sketch prompted phone calls pointing to a similar-looking yet innocent man. But that allowed “detectives to eliminate a suspect and redirect their resources,” and further calls “eventually turned into a solid lead.”
Still, apprehension to sketches persists. That’s partially because…
Many successful sketches don’t look much like their criminal subjects.
We should preface this by noting that Gibson is renowned as one of the most accurate artists in the profession, and many of her sketches are incredibly precise. In some cases, her composites look exactly like the criminals. With that said, they’re not photorealistic, and they’re not nearly as detailed as her fine art pieces.
That’s not as much of an issue as you might assume.
“Some of the sketches that I did that were embarrassingly dissimilar to the suspect prompted an immediate lead,” she says. “You can do a fairly inaccurate sketch and then still catch the person.”
How does that work? In short, Gibson focuses on the features that people will recognize and trusts her witnesses’ memories. If her sketch is anywhere close to the profile of the suspect, it can push people to take action.
She says that sketches are uniquely powerful; while police might have better evidence in court, there are few tools that can motivate the public as effectively as a decent picture.
“I could show your fingerprints to you on a TV screen and let it stay on the screen for four hours, and you wouldn’t recognize your own dang fingerprints,” she says. “I could show your DNA profile. You wouldn’t know it. But I can show a sketch of somebody who beat you up in high school, and you’ll recognize him immediately.”
Gibson tells us that people only need modest sketching experience to have success in the profession.
“You do need to draw a bit,” she says, “but I’ve trained people who’ve gotten [leads] on their very first sketches.”
A Psychologist’s Touch
Gibson isn’t trained as a psychologist, but she’s what you’d call a people person. She has a warm, relaxed demeanor and an engaging personality, and she knows how to draw information out of her witnesses. That’s a crucial part of the job.
“Sometimes [witnesses are] screaming and crying, ‘No, I can’t remember!'” she says. “So that’s the common wisdom. Everybody is sure that this can’t be done.”
Gibson approaches each case differently depending on the personality of her witness.
“I feel what the other person feels, and that’s easy for me,” she explains. “… If you know what they’re feeling, you know what they want to hear.”
“First, I’ll relax you as much as I can,” she explains. “I tell you that this is going to be so easy, that I’ve done this with a 4-year-old kid—and we caught the guy!”
By showing her confidence, Gibson can often glean information from her witness. It’s not always a quick process, but relaxation is key.
“The person that does this the best is the person who relaxes the most,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘I want you to just relax, and here I have a catalog with different eyes, noses, lips, things like that. Look at the book, and if you find something that’s the close to the features of the guy you’re describing, I’ll just draw that and compose the features into a face.’”
She also keeps successful sketches on her walls to give witnesses hope.
“I’ve worked with people that were so injured they don’t remember doing the sketch with me, and I’ve got their sketches on my wall next to the mugshots of the perps after they were arrested. I’ll say, ‘See, it’s not perfect, but it got the guy caught.'”
“I’m the best in the world, and all you’ve got to do is give me an hour of your time.” she says. “What do you have to lose? And I have a real comfortable office with Kleenexes and a candy dish. I’ll go to hospitals and do house calls for people who are injured.”
If a witness still won’t speak, Gibson has other tricks.
Sometimes, she doesn’t speak at all; she simply sits back and waits for the witness to start. That’s more common with adults, but kids make great witnesses, too. While research shows that adults and children process faces differently, Gibson says that kids don’t have the same apprehension as adults when talking about their experiences.
Very few police departments have full-time artists.
In a 2014 interview with NBC News, Suzanne Lowe Birdwell, chair of the Forensic Art Subcommittee for the International Association for Identification, said there are less than 100 full-time forensic artists employed by law enforcement in the U.S. Other police departments use forensic art, but they give the task to police officers who have other duties.
“Chicago has no full-time forensic artist,” Gibson says. “That’s a crime. I’ve trained two artists that have worked there … If you pay taxes in Chicago, don’t you think you should have at least one forensic artist that just does forensic art?”
“But the law enforcement in Chicago police department, in their wisdom, they believe those artists should do the same regular patrol duties that 10,000 other officers could do. [The artists] are uniquely talented, and they could be used full-time.”
Gibson is passionate about training other artists, and she wants to see every major police department employ a full-time forensic artist. That’s not something she’d personally benefit from; she tells us that she’s likely near retirement for her teaching job, although she has no plans to quit working with witnesses.
So, why don’t more police departments employ artists?
“They think it doesn’t work,” she says. “Law enforcement says we don’t want somebody making a mistake. Okay, they want a perfect sketch—there is no perfect sketch! You sit someone in front of me, and I don’t do a perfect drawing. And they don’t do a perfect investigations. Nobody is perfect, but you can get imperfect sketches and they can solve the case.”
And while some police departments use digital composites instead of sketches, those techniques still require artists who understand the science and art of facial recognition. Perhaps more importantly, they require artists who practice empathy, and research has confirmed that interviewing skills play a major role in determining the effectiveness of any kind of forensic art.
For Gibson, that part of the job comes easy.
“I have an office, and I close the door and I tell the witness, ‘We’re alone, and it’s over, you’re alive, you didn’t die. The reason I do this is because someone tried to kill me a long time ago, but look, I didn’t die, either. And it’s so good to not die after you’ve almost died. Now we got a chance to try and get the guy.'”
“Because I’ve helped catch over 1,266 people, and I want to get this guy,” she says. “I want to get him. And it’s going to be fun.”