Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Article excerpt


Sketches make police look busy, but they rarely look like suspects

James D. Martin, 55, was cut down by a sniper's bullet. He was killed at 6:04 a.m. on Oct. 2 as he walked across a parking lot near a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton, Md. As the media began recording the rising body count, bulletin by bulletin, headline by headline, the police were pressured to prove they had a clue about whom was terrorizing everyone in the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington area.

The harried cops needed to keep the press at bay. So the FBI released a sketch of a white box truck that someone saw at one of the shooting sites. It wasn't the getaway car, it turned out, but that didn't matter.

The media love sketches. Especially computer-generated composites handed out at press briefings. Never mind that those sketches barely resemble the perps the police are looking for. Ignore the fact DNA testing has proven the sketches wrong again and again. Forget the walking proof as one man after another is released from prison after being mistakenly arrested and convicted based on distorted descriptions from victims and eyewitnesses.

"Composite sketches have very limited value," said retired Chicago Police Detective Sgt. Paul Carroll from his home in Big Pine Key, Fla. "We use them a lot to put it on the street that we're trying to do something. It's good public relations. The sketches are often someone's imagination."

But imagination is a dangerous thing and reasoning is rare when the body count starts rising. And by Oct. 16, with nine people felled by sniper bullets, the police had to deliver something substantial. A real-life picture -- computerized, of course -- of the alleged perpetrator. But the cops couldn't do it. They were sketchless.

"There are a couple of people who believe they saw a man shoot," Montgomery County (Md.) Police Capt. Nancy Demme told the media. "Unfortunately, distance and darkness and perhaps adrenaline have made [the witnesses] unable to give us a clear composite we can disseminate." The media described her distressed statement in detail. But there were no stories about how useless sketches really are.

That lack of understanding infuriates Gary L. Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University and one of the country's experts on eyewitness testimony. "Releasing sketches is not something that experienced law-enforcement people like to do," Wells said. "One of the problems of releasing composites is that they lead to wrongful arrests. While the composites don't often look very much like a perpetrator, they will look like somebody. …

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