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Police Software Is Putting a New Face on Crime : Technology: A computer program is creating highly accurate composite images of wanted suspects in two LAPD divisions. But some say a sketch artist can do as well for less.

March 05, 1995|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Crime witnesses must often wait weeks, and even months, to meet with the lone LAPD composite artist, who sketches the likenesses of killers, rapists and other criminals.

Trouble is, recollections often fade as time passes between the crime and the composite drawing, which is often instrumental in apprehending suspects.

But two LAPD divisions in central Los Angeles have solved that problem with the help of computer-age technology.

Detectives at the Rampart Division and South Bureau Homicide can now create composites within hours after crimes occur with a computer program that allows users to construct faces with chins, eyes and other features culled from police booking photos.

"After a crime, we can go sit down at the machine and do it while things are still fresh in peoples' minds," said Lt. Dan Hills, commanding officer of Rampart's detective squad.

Rampart--which patrols Echo Park, Westlake, Pico-Union and parts of Koreatown--acquired the $4,600 program early last month. Hills said the new crime-fighting software has already helped nab the suspected killer of a 40-year-old laborer gunned down after a recent follow-home robbery.

Designed by a North Carolina-based firm that specializes in police investigation aids, the program employs thousands of digitized photos depicting the various features of a face.

The characteristics are assigned numbers and compiled by race, gender, size and shape for display in catalogues. Witnesses choose features that best match the culprit's, and investigators key the corresponding numbers into the computer.

Within seconds, a rough image appears on the screen. The likeness can then be polished with dozens of adjustment functions that allow users, for example, to lighten or darken complexions and add hats, facial hair or glasses.

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The entire process generally takes half an hour, said South Bureau Homicide Detective Roosevelt Joseph, who has made roughly 50 composites with the program. "It's a very useful tool."

South Bureau Homicide, which investigates all killings in the city south of the Santa Monica Freeway and east of La Brea Avenue, was the first LAPD division to acquire the program last fall.

Since then, the software has been used to sketch likenesses of close to 40 suspected killers. It is unknown, however, how many arrests have come as a result of the computer program, Joseph said, because the division does not keep those figures. Still, the software is useful in getting composites into the hands of patrol officers almost immediately, he said.

As word of the program spread throughout the department, detectives from other divisions began calling and asking Joseph to create composites for their cases, which included rapes, armed robberies and assaults.

Officials at Rampart Division also caught wind of the program and decided to pursue a copy of the software for themselves. "It's very true to life," Hills said. "It's a lot better than any drawing."

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Rampart was able to purchase the program with the help of a grant from a federal anti-crime program that specifically targeted the violence-plagued division and two other Downtown-area patrol territories.

South Bureau Homicide, on the other hand, turned to the private sector for help in landing its copy of the program after unsuccessfully lobbying the city for funding.

The division first encountered the program in 1991 when Bill Sewell, vice president of Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories, ran a demonstration of the software for former South Bureau Deputy Chief William Rathburn during a stopover in Los Angeles.

Sirchie allowed South Bureau to use the program on a trial run in the hopes the department would eventually buy it. But despite repeated budget requests, city funds never materialized, and Sirchie took the software back in late 1992.

Last spring, South Bureau officials approached Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas to ask for help in finding private donations to purchase the software. By the end of September, Shell Oil Co. and Great Western Bank had pitched in a combined $9,500--enough to buy the program and a new computer system to run it.

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Sirchie, which has been making criminal investigation equipment since 1915, developed the computer program six years ago in an effort to help detectives expedite their cases. "It allows other people besides artists to make composites," he said.

Other LAPD divisions have also expressed interest in obtaining the program.

"We're looking into this thing," said Lt. Louis Trovato, who heads the detective squad at Central Division. "We're always interested in getting any investigative tool that will help us do our job better."

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