From White Paper To Wanted Sign

Stephen Mancusi worked for the New York Police Department for 27 years as a forensic artist. He specializes in composite sketching — the process of interviewing victims and witnesses to create a drawing of a perpetrator that is released to help police find suspects.

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PAUL RAEBURN, host:

And now, if you're sitting at home wishing that you could see how these artists work, you can do it. We have multimedia editor Flora Lichtman here in the studio to tell us about her video pick of the week.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yes, if this has been your dream, it can come true right now on the SCIENCE FRIDAY website.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: We visited with Stephen Mancusi, who works at the New York Police Department for 27 years, drawing these composite sketches that you guys were talking about. And they are the things that end up on wanted signs and in the newspapers to help police track down possible suspects.

RAEBURN: Did he work for the police department, you know?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And...

RAEBURN: Was he a lieutenant? I mean, was he sort of a staff guy?

LICHTMAN: He was the forensic artist, the senior forensic artist for many of those 27 years, and just retired to write a book on this subject. But he walked us through this process of literally going from a blank sheet of paper to a sketch of a person. And when you - you know, I hadn't sort of considered how hard that might be until we sat down with Stephen who, you know, told us basically, not only do you have this sort of memory issue of your witness trying to remember, but they also have to translate what they saw, what's in their mind into words. And then he has to understand that and put it down on paper. And that's - I mean, think about how hard it is to describe the way someone looks.

RAEBURN: It is. Yeah. I mean, yeah, yeah, there are easy things. You know, dark hair, light hair, long hair, short hair, but the actual face...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

RAEBURN: ...is difficult. Now, in the video, what I thought was very interesting in the video, extrapolate is we actually see him doing a drawing. And it's a very - I'm not an artist, but it was interesting to me to see how he used a whole lot of very light strokes to build up the image rather than sort of digging right in with a strong line.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's absolutely right. He has a three-stage process. And the first process is really just - the first stage is just these very light strokes to make kind of the shape of the head. And then you go into the proportions of the features and he's checking with the witness the whole time - does this look about right? And then he goes into the characteristics. And this is sort of the most interesting part to me is people will say things like the guy had tired eyes or something. And he, over the course of his career, has come up with what he calls are solutions to what this sort of...

RAEBURN: He sort of had enough time to...

LICHTMAN: ...characteristic mean.

RAEBURN: ...seen what people mean, and...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

RAEBURN: ...figured it out.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

RAEBURN: And he didn't do a sketch of you while you were there, did he?

Ms. LICHTMAN: No. But he did sort offered to decode why we looked the way we look. And specifically, you know, the people who were there - Katherine, the producer of the segment, and me. And...

RAEBURN: And did you let him decode you?

LICHTMAN: No. It was way too scary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: And besides, I'd rather not know it, I think.

RAEBURN: Thanks, Flora. Check it out on sciencefriday.com.

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