Occasionally, a debate erupts among Forensic Artists about whether or not to use photo references during a composite interview. While there are many good points to be made on either side of the argument, my position has always been to use the method that works best for your eyewitness.
A majority of Forensic Artists have been trained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Years ago the F.B.I. adopted a method for cataloging facial features pioneered by French criminologist Alfonse Bertillion. This led to them to develop an interview method that combines the cognitive interview with the use of photo references. They published the F.B.I Facial Identification Catalog as a resource tool that’s supplied to students who attend their Facial Composite Course. Others who teach their own courses have borrowed the F.B.I.’s method for creating facial composites, making it a standard practice among Forensic Artists.
Studies have long shown that a person’s recognition skills are stronger than their ability to verbally recall facial details. That’s why using photo references works so well. And though some research psychologists might not agree with me; I have a file full of sketches paired with convicted criminals to back my statement. And because there is no legal basis to prevent Forensic Artists from using photographic references, why not consider using them?
But, does that mean that someone who doesn’t use photo references is doing it wrong? Absolutely not. When I began my forensic art career 34 years ago; my first training course was taught by famed Los Angeles Police Composite Artist Fernando Ponce. He taught us to use the witnesses’ verbal description. Although he did not use photo references during his interviews, he did recognize the value of using symbols to describe a person’s facial features similar to the Memopix technique described in J.A. Cormack’s book, The Police Artist’s Reference (1979). Ponce recognized the value of using symbols to describe the face as a visual aid to later create an image from them. But, after a short time using his method, I adopted the use of photo references. Though photo references remain a strong foundation for my interviews, I must sometimes rely solely on a person’s verbal description when the photo reference they are looking for is not available.
Photo references are used as an aid to assist with the recognition portion of eyewitness memory. There is no such thing as ‘flashbulb’ memory, meaning that a person can never remember enough detail to ‘exactly’ describe a person’s face.
Much of their ability to describe a person’s face to a Forensic Artist depends on their level of education, language barriers, level of impairment, time of observation, distance, lighting, ability to properly articulate as well as many other factors that affect their perception. These circumstances cause me to constantly assess my witness throughout the interview so I can revise my method as the interview progresses. This is what works for me. I have had great success conducting my interviews this way. But like I said before, use the method that works best for you remaining mindful of eyewitness research in the field of cognitive psychology and anecdotes about what works well for others.
Unfortunately, others aren’t as flexible in their thoughts about the composite interview. Over the years some in academia, as well as an occasional Forensic Artist, grossly misrepresent the use of photo references. They infer that using photo references contaminates eyewitness memory. They describe a process where Forensic Artists showing countless photographs to eyewitnesses destroying any chance of a successful identification. Yet, despite their criticism, my experience has been the opposite. When you consider that eyewitnesses see hundreds, if not thousands, of faces after a crime occurs, it’s pretty difficult to sequester them and isolate their memory until the composite interview. I think that Forensic Artists do a good job of establishing structure and guidance to help an eyewitness recapture their memory of the suspect. This is accomplished by conducting a guided, cognitive interview that limits the amount of photographs an eyewitness is shown, minimizing the risks described above. And while I respect the work done by research psychologists, I know that there is a difference between laboratory results and actual field application.
Our facial composite software, SketchCop FACETTE, relies on using facial references. Our clients have enjoyed success using a similar interview method I have taught them during my courses. At SketchCop Solutions we’ll keep our eye on the methods that work best and pass them on to our clients. Arguing over whose method is better only takes away from our main goal – catching crooks!