NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – They are a crucial part of a police or FBI investigation – the forensic artist or visual information specialist. Their work can identify a missing person or a suspect in a murder case. But how does one go about becoming a forensic artist, and what does the job entail?
Suzanne Brown is the Supervisory Visual Information Specialist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and says there are four separate disciplines that a forensic artist can use in an investigation – composite sketching, age progression or other kinds of digital modifications, post-mortem, and facial approximation.
Composite sketching is probably the most well-represented in popular media; a witness comes into a police precinct and describes the face of a suspect to a sketch artist. Age progression is a process of using computers to digitally alter a photo to see what someone would look like at a more advanced age or with altered facial hair or accessories. Post-mortem is when a deceased person is found and photographed before advanced decomposition (significant bloating or an exposed skeleton) sets in. Facial approximation happens when skeletal remains are found and a 3D copy of the skull is made and then the artist produces a likeness in collaboration with an anthropologist of the person as if they were living.
“All of those tasks in forensic art can be manually done…but we’re also going digital,” Brown says. “We’re digitally painting or compositing images together to either age somebody or make somebody not appear deceased anymore.”
When a request for a forensic artist comes to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, VA, it’s byway of a local law enforcement agency. That agency is working with their local FBI field office, which facilitates the request to the FBI Laboratory. Once a forensic artist is assigned to a case, they then work directly with the state or local agencies.
Brown says the visual information specialists the FBI uses are not agents with the bureau. “You don’t have to go through any sort of FBI [or] law enforcement training like the special agents do. It’s called ‘professional staff,’ which is pretty much everybody in the FBI who is not an agent,” she says.
According to Brown, only some of her team of visual information specialists are trained to do forensic art. “These folks have a background in understanding the anatomy of the face and the aging process…and also [are] talented artists,” Brown says.
The tasks of the members of Brown’s team change depending on what needs to be done at any given moment. “When investigative graphics or trial exhibits are required or needed for a case, they come through us,” says Brown. “So most of my staff, they can wear multiple hats. So, they can do forensic artwork but they also can maybe do infographics or trial exhibits, sometimes 3D modeling, video editing; all for casework that comes in.”
Brown says her visual information specialists who work on forensic art find the job fulfilling by being able to work on all sorts of different cases. “A lot of people would love to be able to do this job but there’s a lot of agencies [that] can’t afford to have a full-time forensic artist so, it’s either a collateral duty or it’s a part-time thing,” says Brown. “There’s really no other job like it in the FBI or even out in the ‘real world,’ if you will – outside of our FBI walls.”