Composite images are the “bread and butter” of any working forensic artist. Composite drawings are defined in the Composite Art Manual by Frank Domingo as “a freehand drawing made by combining various parts into a single graphic image.” A composite image’s main objective is to generate leads for the investigating detectives. There are various techniques available to complete a composite image. The primary technique is the hand drawn method. In this case an artist, with drawing skills and training in interviewing victims and witnesses, will prepare a hand drawn image from reference images selected by the witness into a drawing that represents the memory of the witness or victim as accurately as possible.
Does the drawing need to look exactly like the perpetrator to be effective? No, it does not. The likeness should be as accurate as possible, but a general or close likeness will in many cases stimulate recognition on the part of viewers. In contrast to the commonly held belief that highly detailed or photographic images are more effective, these images actually narrow the scope of interpretation on the part of the viewer who simply concludes that they don’t know the person in the picture rather than considering the likeness possibilities. Numbers of drawings done by artists vary from state to state, city to city, and town to town, but can range from one or two a year to several hundred. The success of a composite image is based solely on how an investigating officer does or does not utilize the image. Much ado is sometimes made about the clearing rate of an individual artist, but allowing credit to go to the artist for the successful clearing of a composite image is paramount to crediting a pie tin manufacturer for the outcome of a prize winning apple pie.
Assemblage and computer generated composite images have been on the scene for quite a long time and some of the processes, in the right hands, can be very effective. The most distinct failings though, of mostly all mechanical processes, are the lack of facial features and the costs to run or access the systems. Faces vary in limitless ways. Mechanically assembled image systems can only offer a limited number of facial features. The frustrating part about these systems is that the more features that are available with the programs, the more likely the operator will have a hard time accessing the features. This will most likely confuse and frustrate the victim or witness in the process. Costs can be prohibitive as well. A system that offers unlimited access to the facial features of 18 to 30 year old black and white males fails to account for the crimes committed by the occasional female, Asian, Latin, or older suspects. Here’s where they get you. In some systems, separate race and sex packages are available at additional costs. But in most programs you’re left to try and get where you need to go with what they offer. Operators are forced at some point to tell a witness or victim, “Sorry, I don’t have that feature.” That is unacceptable.