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Drawing On Technology : Computer Allows Police to Alter Fugitives' Images, 'Age' Missing Kids


ORANGE — The suspect's goateed face stared from the computer monitor, and Orange police artist Michael Streed went to work.

Streed punched up on the screen an older photograph of the man--this one showing him barefaced and chubbier--and put it next to the first. With a few clicks of his computer mouse, Streed removed the cleanshaven chin from one photo and placed it on the other. With a few more clicks, he shaved the rest of the goatee and drew in the philtrum, the indentation under the nose.

When he finished, Streed had created a genuine-looking composite image, merging features from two different periods and looks. The rendering later helped witnesses identify the man--a master of disguise who is said to gain and lose weight drastically--as the main suspect sought in the murder of a Yorba Linda supermarket manager and shooting of an Orange security guard this year.

Here is the wanted poster of the 1990s--a cutting-edge art form that most police agencies still lack the equipment and ability to produce. Using a grant from a group that searches for missing children, the Orange Police Department is the only agency in California now using a computer system that alters photographs of fugitives and "ages" children who have been missing for years.

And Streed, a 36-year-old officer who draws animal cartoons in his spare time, is among a new generation of police artists whose use of computer graphics may one day render obsolete the old-fashioned composite drawing--and the skilled hands that have produced it.

"We're at the beginning stages of doing away with police artists," said Thomas F. Macris, a longtime San Jose police sketch artist who helped create one of the first computer systems for preparing composites based on hand-drawn features. It was part of the evolution that led to computerized photo enhancement used by Streed.

"If the research and development could be supported with enough money, you could have a composite program that could get rid of the police artist."

Some departments have used computers for years to create simple composites--assembling the eyes, ears, nose, hairstyle, glasses and other features from computer archives containing thousands of pictures of facial parts and accessories. These software programs allow investigators who cannot draw to aid a witness in re-creating the face of a suspect, a big help for agencies that can't afford a staff artist.

But Streed and a handful of police artists nationwide are beginning to employ the next level of technology, which allows police to feed photographs into the computer and then use graphics software to alter or even blend them.

One imaging program, developed by Santa Ana-based Infotec Development Inc., is finding use in searching for missing children whose past photographs can be merged with those of siblings or unrelated contemporaries to create a vision of how the child might look with the passage of time.

"If you redraw it, you might lose something from the original," Streed said. "You might not have the nose the way it looks. You might have eyes the wrong size."

In time, experts predict, computers will be used to scan police photo files for suspects who match features described by a witness. A Northern California firm called Visatex Corp. is already experimenting with a system to do that. Other expected advances will allow police to create pictures of faces with only skull fragments to go on. Such reconstructions are now done by forensic anthropologists.

"The computer has been another valuable tool in my bag of tricks," said Karen T. Taylor, a forensic artist with the Texas Department of Public Safety who trains police artists and prepares composites for television's "America's Most Wanted."

Hand-drawn composites, used routinely to hunt criminals, find missing persons and identify bodies, have been on the law enforcement scene since Scotland Yard produced a crude caricature a century ago, Taylor said.

Once largely replaced by the Identi-Kit--a system in which eyes, noses and mustaches are applied to a foil face in a manner compared derisively to the Mr. Potato Head game--the drawing made a comeback by the 1980s.

It is work that often grabs the public's attention. Sheriff's investigators were able to identify a murder victim three weeks ago after the man's girlfriend recognized a sketch in the newspaper. But in another recent case, the mother of a murder victim in Huntington Beach became so frustrated with the pace of the police investigation that she hired her own sketch artist, then held a press conference to release a new composite drawing of the suspect.

Police drawings generate strong interest--even controversy--because they invite the public to take part in a criminal investigation and attach a face to a crime, artists say.

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