Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Police Sketches Work

How Police Sketches Work: Author’s Note
Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
hsw 2009

Though they're quite common, police sketches are one of the most controversial criminology techniques, since they rarely result in a spitting-image representation of a criminal suspect. For that reason, I wanted to get to the bottom of whether police sketches serve any useful law enforcement purpose and whether advanced technology holds any promise for fine-tuning the portraiture process. The U.S. Department of Justice is funding preliminary research into DNA phenotyping, which could potentially offer clues to criminals' appearances based on DNA samples of hair or blood collected from crime scenes. But in the meantime, forensic artists must rely on a combination of strategic interview tactics and portraiture skills to cobble together suspects' physical features. For all of the high-tech forensics techniques showcased today in crime dramas on TV, tracking down a criminal's face remains a surprisingly primitive practice at most law enforcement outposts.


  • Adams, Cecil. "How accurate are police sketches of suspected criminals?" The Straight Dope. May 7, 2010. (May 5, 2011)
  • Avril, Tom. "How useful are police composite sketches?" Philadelphia Inquirer. April 25, 2011. (May 5, 2011)
  • Bruni, Frank. "Doing Police Sketches: ' Not an Exact Science'" The New York Times. June 11, 1996. (May 5, 2011)
  • De Grazia, Diane. "The Inventive Genius of Annibale Carracci." National Gallery of Art. (May 5, 2011)
  • Echaore-McDavid, Susan and McDavid, Richard A. "Career Opportunities in Forensic Science." Ferguson. New York, New York. 2008. (May 5, 2011)
  • Enserink, Martin. "Can This DNA Sleuth Help Catch Criminals?" Science. Feb. 18, 2011. (May 5, 2011)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "The 'Art' of Solving Crimes." June 8, 2005. (May 5, 2011)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Forensic Facial Imaging." (May 5, 2011)
  • Frowd, C.D. et al. "An evaluation of US systems for facial composition production." Ergonomics. Vol. 50, No. 12, Dec. 2007.
  • Heafner, Horace J. "History of Forensic Art." The Police Artist & Composite Drawings. (May 5, 2011)
  • Lichtman, Flora. "Video Pick of the Week: Composite Sketch." Sept. 24, 2010. (May 5, 2011)
  • Michigan State Police Department. "Forensic Art 101." (May 5, 2011),1607,7-123-1589_3493_22454-59999--,00.html
  • Muench, Sarah. "Police sketches aided 'Chandler Rapist' investigation." The Arizona Republic. Feb. 1, 2008. (May 5, 2011)
  • National Institute of Medicine. "Alphonse Bertillon (1853 - 1914)." Updated June 15, 2006. (May 5, 2011)
  • Raeburn, Paul. "Forensic Artists Use Talent to Solve Crimes." Science Friday. NPR. Sept. 24, 2010. (May 5, 2011)
  • Saletan, William. "Race, Genes, and Criminal Justice." Slate. March 30, 2009. (May 5, 2011)
  • Taister, Michael A. "Forensic Art and Illustration." January 2001. (May 5, 2011)

More to Explore