Composite drawings, or “bad guy sketches,” are a long-standing form of crime-solving. Former NYPD forensic artist Stephen Mancusi met with Business Insider at his studio to explain how the process works. The drawings are produced through an interview process with a witness or a victim as the artist translates the given information to create a likeness.
Mancusi says that the interview is the most difficult part of the process. “As the artist I have no idea what the guy looks like. I have to work from that vague, kind of fluid memory of a witness or a victim.”
“You want to keep in mind that a composite sketch is not an exact representation or a portrait of a suspect. What it is is a drawing of a witness or victim’s perception of somebody.”
“Hi, I’m Stephen Mancusi, I’m the department artist, we’re going to try to do a sketch of the person that you saw.” As soon as I say those words, my interview’s starting.
Composite sketching is the drawing of the bad guys or the suspects from a witness’ or victim’s perception of that person.
Composite sketching, police art, is a relatively old form of crime-fighting. It’s been around since the Westerns, you know, when you used to see those “Wanted” posters from the Old West, those were composite sketches, most of them were drawings, you know?
In the eighties, we weren’t even called forensic artists,” we were just called “police artist” or just, you know, “cop artist, something like that, which is almost like an oxymoron, “cop artist,” you know?
Now, drawing may seem like the most important or the most difficult part of it, but it’s not. The most difficult part of creating a composite sketch is the interview:
“Anything unusual about him that stood out? Does he have any scars or marks on his face? He’s wearing glasses, are they prescription glasses? Does he have a very thin nose? OK, how about the mouth shape? Is that good, or do you want to adjust that?”
As the artist, I have no idea what the guy looks like. I have to work from that vague, kind of fluid memory of a witness or a victim.
You want to keep in mind that a composite sketch is not an exact representation or a portrait of a suspect. What it is is a drawing of a witness or victim’s perception of somebody.
So we just need a likeness, a similarity to a suspect so that maybe someone sees the sketch and it reminds them of someone they know, someone from the neighbourhood, someone they saw once, and they give us a lead to how to catch the bad guy.
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