Computer images give police the big picture Sketching program creates the likenesses of criminal suspects

September 25, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A police report filed in December had only a scant description of a man who raped a 22-year-old woman after tying up her boyfriend in a Bolton Hill home. She could only remember a white man wearing brown shoes who stood 5 feet 8 inches tall.

Seven months later, the woman was able to summon enough courage to sit down with a detective, who used a new computer sketch program and came up with a digital drawing of what the suspect supposedly looked like.

Police found him the next day -- already in prison on another charge.

Called E-Fit, the program is a step-by-step process in creating a face. It allows officers more flexibility than either a police sketch artist or composites -- in which drawings were created by overlapping clear plastic sheets with pre-printed features.

"To me it's been a tremendous asset," said Maj. Wendell M. France, head of the crimes against persons section, which includes the homicide unit.

Before the computer, Major France said, detectives had to "wait for availability of a sketch artist, usually from some other department, and coordinate the witness's availability to come in."

The Baltimore Police Department started using the $5,500 E-Fit program -- funded through a state grant -- in February, and it already has created 36 composite drawings, leading to 14 arrests in cases from homicide to bank robbery to rape.

While a detailed description is still vital to creating a good likeness, the computer program allows officers to manipulate facial features, such as moving eyes closer together, thinning eyebrows and altering skin tones.

Under the old system, victims and witnesses would view the traditional mug books. "It has always been a hit-or-miss process that often results in more failures than successes," said Lt. Larry Leeson, head of the robbery unit.

The data base contains dozens of hair styles, 54 different kinds ++ of eyeglasses and 108 hat variations. Several officers in the robbery, sex offense and homicide units are trained on the system.

The department may even buy a laptop computer. "Officers will be able to sketch a suspect right at a hospital bedside or in their car," Lieutenant Leeson said.

But a police sketch artist can still be helpful. After completing a basic likeness using the program's existing facial features stored in memory, a user can manipulate the face in any way conceivable, a computer equivalent of plucking eyebrows or piercing a nose.

"Baltimore city has never had a police sketch artist," Lieutenant Leeson said. "Nobody had ever bothered to request one. I have."

Not only can the program aid in finding suspects, it can be used to identify victims who are either badly beaten or decomposed. For example, by scanning in a morgue photo, the homicide unit "restored" the face of a woman assault victim.

"We merged the photo into the computer and brought her back to life," Lieutenant Leeson said. The dead victim still has not been identified.

In another case involving a bank robbery, detectives were able to eliminate a prime suspect -- which can save countless hours of investigation time. A man kept robbing banks throughout central Maryland wearing a fake beard. Police thought they had a suspect, scanned his beardless photo into the computer, added a beard and decided it couldn't be the same man.

"It works both ways," Lieutenant Leeson said. "It not only proves you guilty, it finds you innocent."

"Victims who have gone through a traumatic experience or are raped by a man never forget," said Detective Shelia A. Savaliksi, who works in the sex offense unit and uses the sketch program.

The detective said one woman calmly talked her through a description for an hour, and upon seeing the face she described, "started crying."

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