Sketch artist predicts sketch computer will catch crooks

HOUSTON -- Maybe you don't know her name, but you've probably seen Lois Gibson's work.

Her haunting sketch of a smiling blonde child whose body was discovered in 2007 on an island in Galveston Bay led to the arrest of Riley Ann Sawyer's mother and boyfriend. ("So it took me 45 minutes to catch two people that murdered a baby and thought they could hide it," she recalled.)

A sketch she drew after talking with a traumatized 10 year-old rape victim was so accurate, the attacker saw his own face on television and decided to surrender. ("That's a hole in one for a forensic artist," Gibson said.)

Gibson's sketches have helped put thousands of criminals behind bars. She's written books on forensic art and she teaches courses to artists from around the world. Her decades working for the Houston Police Department, where she's something of a living legend, won her a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records.

She's never trusted any of the computer programs many police departments now use as a substitute for professional sketch artists, but now a different kind of program has her so excited the possibilities can bring tears to her eyes.

"They just finally perfected it after 20, 30 years," Gibson said. "We can now put a sketch into the system and it instantly compares that sketch to thousands, tens of thousands, of mug shots. And it can pull up the perpetrator of the crime."

Computer programmers have tried to develop software that can perform this function for decades, Gibson said, but it wasn't until 2012 that a couple of programmers at the University of Michigan came up with a workable system. As an example, she pointed to three of her sketches they fed into a database of thousands of mug shots. In each of the three cases, the program selected the mug shot of the proven perpetrator.

"Our department, along with other departments, has purchased this system," Gibson said. "I can hardly wait to get the chance to stick one of my sketches in from a witness and help the detective find the identity."

The system still hasn't been put into use, Gibson said, because the DPS is still drawing up protocols for its implementation.

Although they've proven themselves remarkably useful catching criminals in Houston, police sketch work is something of a dying art nationwide. Only 26 law enforcement agencies employ full-time sketch artists, Gibson said.

"I think law enforcement is going to finally embrace forensic artists," she said. "And they should, because forensic artists can solve cases."

She hopes this new software will lead to a renaissance in forensic art, a skill she teaches in seminars.

"I believe it's going to explode the need and the jobs for forensic artists," she said. "And there's people all over the country who know how to draw really well, but they're like starving artists. But now, they can get jobs at all these police departments."


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