Mayra Cruz" />
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Sunday, September 24, 2023


Stopping crime one sketch at a time

Among the last things a victim of a crime likes to do is recall the exact incident over and over again. Although recalling the incident can be traumatizing, for the UH Police Department the better the description of the suspects and the nature of the crime the witness provides can lead to a more efficient search.

The standard procedure begins with an interview of the victim or witness after a report has been filed.

"Basically, after we get the report, we start to go through everything," police investigator Paul Mauro said.

When cameras around campus are not able to capture a suspect’s face, then a witness is interviewed to determine if a composite sketch is needed to aid the investigation.

"We interview them (the witnesses) first and after the interview, we sit them down and go through the composites," Mauro said. "The interview, you use to see whether or not you’re going to be able to make a composite and if so, how accurate is the composite going to be? Because you don’t just want to be making pictures of people that didn’t do it or you can’t (find) or (have) a close likeness."

Composite sketches are now done by computer and used in cases where the suspect’s identity is unknown. An investigator then fills in the automated questionnaire in the computer program that lists the general description of a person’s face, beginning with the shape of a suspect’s jaw line, followed by the eyes and nose, which Mauro said are among the most memorable features a witness can recall.

"You do one feature at a time," he said. "You usually want to start with the eyes because the eyes and the nose is what (the witness) focus in on."

In some cases, however, a sketch artist that works with the Houston Police Department is needed in order to distinguish finer details and to get a better rendition of a suspect’s face.

"The composites are all done by computer; we don’t have to free-hand anything," Mauro said. "We do have somebody that if we have to call out if it was a serious situation and we needed something drawn."

The composites are usually general renditions of a suspect and have yielded mixed results during investigations to date, Mauro said.

"We haven’t had a whole lot (of success) with it just because when you have a robbery happen, it happens so fast (that) people don’t get a good look at them (the assailant). (The victim’s) first reaction is to run," Mauro said. "They’re not worried about getting a description; they’re worried about getting away."

Computerized sketches do pose a problem for officers when the description is too broad to distinguish a suspect.

"People feel good when they see a composite. They say, ‘I know I can look for this guy.’ It gives them peace of mind," Mauro said. "They don’t help every investigation, but do help some. When you get some better ones and you know exactly what you’re looking for and it’s not so broad, (then) it’s a little easier."

When the computerized composites are not used, a photo line-up is used. A photo line-up differs from a traditional line-up in that photos from people’s identification are used rather than using six people for a witness to view and identify.

A photo line-up is used when the suspect’s identity is known and found through the Texas Department of Public Safety. A search is performed on the suspect’s name, along with other data, such as an approximate age, and put on a PowerPoint template. A witness can then identify a suspect among six other similar looking photos.

"If you’re looking for a bad guy and you know who he is, there is no need to do a composite," Mauro said. "You can go straight to the (driver’s license)… (and) you start doing a background (check). You start looking for who he might associate with, where he might live, how do you track this guy down."

The UHPD also works with local law enforcement agencies, such as the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Postal Inspector as a way to pool resources and collaborate on ongoing investigations.

At times, an investigation may overlap onto another agency’s jurisdiction, such as the Postal Inspector for mail fraud. The Texas Rangers have been an important part of investigations when a fingerprint match is needed because the lab can process a request very quickly, usually within a day, as compared to other labs which may take up to several weeks.

In the end, however, there is no substitute for good detective work, no matter how effective the tools of the trade are in an investigation.

"Usually, it’s old-fashioned legwork, finding out who did it," Mauro said.

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