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What is a Police Sketch Artist?

By M. DePietro
Updated May 16, 2024
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Usually a police sketch artist will assist law enforcement agencies in identifying suspects in a crime. However, they may also help agencies identify skeletal remains or missing persons. Artists work for a variety of law enforcement agencies including city police departments and county sheriffs offices. They may also work with federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Artists must first obtain information from a victim or witness. This requires excellent communication skills. The sketch artist must be able to get a traumatized individual to recall details and interpret them correctly in order to draw a composite sketch of the suspect. Because a large part of the job involves dealing with victims of crimes, classes in psychology and criminal justice may be helpful.

A police sketch artist will need to obtain details about a suspect, such as weight, height, age and ethnic background. Next, he will ask more specific information about facial features, including the shape of the eyes and size of the nose and mouth. Victims and witnesses will be asked to recall anything that makes the suspect stand out, such as a scar or facial hair.

Composite drawings are only one means of creating an image of a suspect. Some law enforcement agencies use computer generated composites. After details regarding facial features are obtained from a witness, the police sketch artist inputs the information into special software programs, which interprets the data and creates a sketch. Although police departments find the computer composites helpful, some law enforcement agencies still prefer hand drawn composites.

Other techniques used by a police sketch artist include clay facial reconstruction. This technique involves taking measurements from skeletal remains and creating a clay model of the face. Photographs are than taken and distributed to the press to help identify the remains. Sketch artists may also use computer generated age progression made from photos to help locate a missing child.

Although a college degree is not required to become a police sketch artist, formal art classes which teach composite drawing are helpful. Classes in forensic art or composite drawing are offered at colleges and technical schools, as well as online. Although it is not mandatory, some artists have a background working with a law enforcement agencies in some capacity.

A certification in forensic art is offered through the International Association for Identification. Applicants must have two years experience doing some type of forensic art, such as composite drawing. In addition, a portfolio must be submitted with photographs of sketches completed which were used in investigations. After all pre-requisites are completed applicants must pass an exam.

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Discussion Comments

By anon26478 — On Feb 14, 2009

In order to become a sketch artist, do you just find and agency that is willing to hire you without experience or is there a license or some type of training that is required for a department to be able to hire an artist?

By anon25319 — On Jan 27, 2009

california pay range, entry to top [per month]?

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