The role gender neutrality plays on police sketch artists

The role gender neutrality plays on police sketch artists

CultureDecember 12, 2017 By George Hardwick

With the coming acceptance of gender neutrality in mainstream society, it’s easy to wonder what kind of impact it’ll have on established industries. One of those is what police sketch artists, who often deal with not much more than a few shaky memories from witnesses to build a profile, are going to do with so many ways to describe identity.

Artists already have a reputation that could use a lot of improvement. Sketches, on average, are only between nine and twenty percent accurate — which is like saying they were accurate enough to not accidentally draw an alien. But a lot of this isn’t even the fault of the artist. Most of how a sketch is made comes from the description the victim puts forward, often pieced together one feature at a time.

Lois Gibson is one of the best police sketch artists in the industry and holds a Guinness World Record to prove it. Her work over the years has helped capture more than 1,000 criminals. Via email, she describes the process of drawing an attacker as coming mostly from a catalogue of facial descriptions. “I did a sketch from a 4-year-old who saw his parents slashed to death in Ulysses, Kansas, who only spoke Spanish,” she recalls. “He chose eyes, lips, nose, etc. that most resembled their attacker from my Samantha Sternberg facial feature catalog.”

[Lois Gibson, image via Guinness World Records]

In this case, the sketch was accurate enough for police to catch the crook, but the sketch was done almost entirely without verbal language of a young child. Gender, in this and many other cases, isn't ever a focus. "I simply make the drawing look like whatever that person looked like," she says. "I don't need to 'know the sex' just create an image with the 'look.'"

If anything, Lois Gibson adds, the growing acceptance of gender neutrality and hyper-specific identity descriptors would only serve to help artists be more accurate.

“Unusual sexual indications make a person stand out more, thus improving prospects the image will prompt a tip,” she says.

[Gibson's 1990 sketch of Charles Raiford was so accurate he turned himself in after it was released.]

That’s because drawing a person who may or may not have committed a crime revolves around main features, witnesses often picking out defining characteristics that could spark a memory in those looking at the poster or watching the local news.

“We get descriptions not from words, but mostly from witnesses choosing features,” says Gibson. In the case of the 4-year-old, “The officers walked near the area and people kept saying it looked like the resident of a house. Once they contacted the occupant, the case was solved, they found the knife there.”

Gibson adds the future of police sketching isn’t at all marred by the growing number of recording devices on the street, either; quite the opposite in fact.

“Facial identification systems are being perfected,” she says. “Investigators can take our sketches done from witness memory, enter them into systems that compare those images to hundreds of thousands of mug photos, and the system produces a match.”

Having a wider variety of gender definitions will not only make identifying criminals much easier, but will also really spice up what we get to see on the local news. Gender neutrality’s new vocabulary may still only be in its feeble beginnings, but with new rhetoric available to the police force, may actually help solve more crime in the future.