By Cynthia M. Jeffries

Daily Journal

Tupelo police officers have ways of dealing with sketchy details when developing images of suspected criminals.

Based on descriptions from victims and witnesses, detectives are able to develop a possible picture of the suspect using a kit that allows detectives to construct facial composites.

Capt. Harold Chaffin, chief of the Tupelo Police Department’s Detective Division, said because a composite will never be picture-perfect, the sketches are more for elimination purposes than identification.

“Based on what you have, you can eliminate that the person has a mustache, wears glasses and maybe (get an idea of) what he looks like,” Chaffin said.

How it works

To begin a composite, Tupelo officers use an “Identi-Kit” supplied by the gunmaker Smith & Wesson, said to be one of the leading suppliers of composite kits to law enforcement officers around the country. The kit contains hundreds of clear plastic sheets that carry facial features like eyes, hair styles, headwear, noses, lips, ears and head shapes. Facial lines are also included among the sheets.

To get an idea of where to start, the officer will ask the crime victim basic questions about a suspect’s height, build, race, approximate age and hair length and color.

Based on that information, the officer can begin laying down a possible sketch of face shape. Once that is done, the officer adds the eyes, nose, lips, facial lines and marks.

It can take up to two hours or more to come up with a composite the victim thinks resembles the suspect, said Lt. Bart Aguirre, one of the three detectives who helps construct the composites.

Aguirre said the time is understandable because victims usually see a suspect for a minute or less in a highly tense and excited situation.

But Aguirre doesn’t mind the time it takes.

“It’s good when they make a lot of changes,” Aguirre said. “That lets you know that it’s a real person and not just someone they made up.”

Once the victim is satisfied with the image, all of the layers are paper-clipped together, photocopied and distributed to news media and other law enforcement agencies.

Chaffin said a composite also is only as good as a victim’s memory.

“We are not artists,” Aguirre said. “We are trying to get likeliness and certain features of that person.”

The police department constructs composites in cases like robberies, murders or rapes where the victim does not know the suspect.

Chaffin said once a composite is done and distributed, his department receives quite a few calls from people who think they may recognize the suspect. But, he said, the composites are not associated with a high capture rate.

Last week, after The Uniform Corner on Harrison Street was robbed, officials had the victims come up with a composite of the robbery suspect. Though several calls came in to police from people who thought they recognized the suspect, an arrest has not been made yet.

Composites are often associated with high-profile cases. After the April 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the FBI assembled drawings of two suspects and distributed them to the media. Earlier in 1995, South Carolina authorities built a composite of an alleged carjacker who drove off with two small children. That drawing turned out to be a fake, and the mother of the two children was arrested in connection with the incident.

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