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Pencils to pixels: Software created by former SB Co. deputy helps police create suspect sketches

Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-25 22:26:59-05

Detectives say one of the best things they can get from a victim when they’re trying to solve a crime is a clear description of the suspect.

Back in October, Santa Maria police released a composite sketch of a man who attempted to kidnap a girl on her way to school.

Turns out, it’s not a sketch artist that comes up with sketches like these. It’s software that helps the Santa Maria Police Department put together a digital sketch of a criminal.

For years, criminalistics technicians like Cristal Burkett have been creating sketch-like images of the faces behind crimes.

She uses a computer program alongside victims to help police identify suspects.

“We will put it together with our SketchCop Software and as we’re doing the process, we’ll continue to ask more questions and more details so we can get a composite sketch that is as close as possible to the suspect,” Burkett explained.

SMPD made the switch from pencils to pixels in 2011.

“On the major crimes where we needed assistance, we’d have to look to the larger departments to possibly provide us with a sketch artist,” said Timothy Sutcliffe, Santa Maria Police Department Crime Lab Evidence Supervisor.

Fast forward years later and Michael Streed, a former Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Santa Maria station in the 1970s, co-created SketchCop Solutions.

“The desire was to create a user-friendly, portable, affordable program for law enforcement that they wouldn’t be afraid to use, that they would want to use because it was user-friendly and it was something they could have as a 24/7 solution to violent crime,” Streed explained.

Streed has been a composite sketch artist for nearly 40 years but he’s found that he’s not always available to sketch for every crime, so he came up with the software as a solution.

“There are over 2,000 facial components, so really with that many facial components and the editing tools, you can create, I mean millions of different looks,” Streed said.

We decided to put the software to the test. I looked at a picture of our producer’s boyfriend for less than 10 seconds and then described it. About an hour later, we came up with the finished product.

“Every person’s memory is different and when you’re in a very stressful situation, sometimes some things are easier to remember than others,” Burkett said.

Organizations like Crime Stoppers consider these computer programs invaluable in the war on crime.

“Composite sketches and any other tool that would help somebody remember details of a crime or jog their memory of their activity during the day would be helpful to our program,” said Stuart MacDonald of the San Luis Obispo County Crime Stoppers Unit.

Experts in the Santa Maria Crime Lab say it’s useful, especially right after a crime.

“We’re doing the sketches directly from the witness statement so that’s what we’re basing it on is everything that they recall in that incident,” Sutcliffe said.

It’s not a perfect tool but it is bringing science and art together in the pursuit of justice.

“It just depends on how forthcoming the witness or witnesses are involved in the incident,” Burkett concluded.

More than 50 police agencies around the world use the SketchCop Solutions program, including in Canada and on the west coast.

For more information, click here.