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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 11:49 GMT
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The Norfolk Constabulary electronic photofit
Have you ever met anyone who looks like this?
Much mirth in the media this week after police produced an electronic photofit of a burglary suspect looking more like Mr Potato Head than any living person. But recreating suspects faces from witnesses' memories is a subtle art.

Norfolk landlady Kim Rule helped officers use computer technology to create the image of a thief who stole two safes from her pub.

The picture generated by the local police force featured a man with a Hitler moustache, potato head, half an ear, fair hair and black eyebrows. Any attempt to use the electronic photofit was abandoned.

Ms Rule herself was unable to recognise the image at all, saying it looked "like no one I've ever seen in my life."

So what's the best way to get as true a likeness of suspects from a victim or eyewitness' memory?

One police artist, who regularly taps into the deepest memories of eyewitnesses to get good likenesses of suspects, is sceptical of how effective electronic systems can be.

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"The reason they do not work well is because the person operating the machine is not an artist, so doesn't understand basic things, for example, if you make the nose too long it automatically makes the mouth too low," she says. (She has asked to remain anonymous because her portraits have helped to identify many criminals.)

"It's easy to stretch the face out and distort an image; if you are a portrait artist you would instantly see the error."

Little details

Also, because computer technology just offers a number of pre-installed mouths, eyes and ears to choose from, witnesses might not explore their memory effectively.

But there are some techniques for getting the best out of witnesses. Many people are fantastic at remembering little details which help create a very close likeness of suspects, but staring at options on a screen can make people "numb" to the process, she says.

Before drawing a single line, the artist asks the eyewitness to describe their surroundings immediately before the crime.

It can be very distressing work, but if it helps to catch someone the victim often feels like less of a victim
Police artist
"You're trying to get them to start re-winding the film, if you like. Sometimes you find you are better off drawing a profile rather than a full face."

Even while drawing, the artist will not allow the victims to look at the image until the first draft is almost complete. Then she will alter as many times as she needs to.

"I stress it is just as important to tell me what is wrong, as well as what is right, with a drawing. I make changes without them looking because then they are looking at it with a fresh eye each time.

"I can't tell you the number of times people have looked at the final result and burst into tears because they didn't realise they had noticed so much."

There have been some extraordinary cases where her portraits have managed to nail suspects.

Attacker unmasked

One woman was attacked by a man who had made himself a mask out of black tape. The victim could only see her assailant's hair, eyes and mouth. After first drawing the suspect with the tape, the artist created another image without tape.

While the victim could not recognise him with the mask on, she immediately identified him as a regular at her local pub from the image without the tape. He was swiftly arrested and prosecuted.

In another case, the description provided by a 10-year-old child enabled the artist to produce a picture so lifelike his attacker was arrested within a few hours of its release. It was so important to that 10-year-old boy to know that it was down to him - his description - that his attacker was caught.

"It can be very distressing work, but if it helps to catch someone the victim often feels like less of a victim, so it's really important to try and get as close a resemblance as possible."

A spokesman for Norfolk Constabulary said its staff were fully trained in the use of their equipment. "The e-fit image is compiled as a result of the witness to the crime giving as accurate and detailed description as possible and how much they are able to recall.

"The e-fit is a powerful visual tool used to catch criminals. It is a personal recollection of the offender and is a valuable alternative to just a written description."


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