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Are police sketches accurate?

Police sketches are old as our entire justice system. Yet, they’re still being used today as one method for identifying the perpetrator of a crime.

But, as the United States has aged, many of its city populations have grown to hold more faces that could potentially match the vague image of a police sketch. Is this dated method of crime solving now doing more harm than good?

Recall memory

Back in the days of “Wanted” posters, instant photography was not a possibility. Police sketches were instead used to give the public some indication of whether a newcomer in town might be dangerous. In fact, without fingerprint technology, the police simply relied on a person from the perp’s past to identify him or her.

Today, we have security cameras and DNA testing to help law enforcement identify criminals. Because of this technology, we’ve also discovered that eye witness testimonies aren’t as accurate as we might think.

Most witnesses don’t realize that they subconsciously fill in the details they missed or forgot when they recall a memory. This reconstruction largely comes from personal bias and can completely warp the events that took place despite the witness having been there to see them.

An unfinished drawing

When a witness is unable to recall whether a person’s hairline was in the shape of a widow’s peak or how close together their eyes were or any other fine detail, the sketch artist can’t leave these details out.

Instead, sketch artists must finish their drawing, guessing at these details and in turn, creating an image that might look more like someone else.

A replacement in the works

Incorrect police sketches can corrupt a witness’ memory and lead to false arrests. Security cameras can help to identify a criminal in some cases, but oftentimes the footage is blurry, the lighting is dark and the person may have even covered their face.

However, there is hope for a better alternative! While still in its infancy of development, DNA phenotyping is a scientific process that could potentially use a person’s DNA information to construct an accurate visual of what that person would look like.

This could help a number of appeals, while also eliminating the likelihood of inaccurate police sketches.

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