Police Artist Turns Sketchy Details Into Useful Drawing

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Detective Bob Powers of Phoenix spent a few hours in Payson Monday, interviewing the victim of the armed robbery of a local business last week.

By the time he left the Rim country, he was able to leave behind the face of the suspected robber.

Powers is a composite artist with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. As needed, his department loans out his talents --the ability to discern from witnesses the often indescribable features of suspected criminals and turn them into a sketch of a recognizable person.

"I've been drawing my whole life," Powers said. "I was a doodler from way back. In fact, I had one teacher who used to get so mad at me for doodling."

An officer for Maricopa County for 13 years, Powers said his department had a detective that doubled as the sketch artist.

"About the time he was retiring, I had a couple of cases I needed drawings on," he said. "He was unavailable, so I just started doing it myself, without really knowing what I was doing."

He has since taken courses on composite drawing, and even attended a seminar at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. He has been a composite artist for the past three years.

When Powers is called in on a case -- such as the robbery of Payson Party Plus last week, or the armed robbery of Wendy's last year --he first spends time brushing up on the details of the case. Once he's familiar with the facts, he said, he's ready to sit down with the witness.

"I do an interview with them before I do any drawing," he said. "I ask open-ended questions like, 'What can you tell me about his size?' or 'What can you tell me about the shape of his head?' I don't ask them if his hair was long or short, straight or curly."

Once Powers has an idea in his head of the suspect, then he puts pencil to paper.

During the sketch process, he conducts a cognitive interview of the witness --something he says is not hypnosis, exactly. He tries to get the witness to relax, and get them back to the situation where they saw the suspect.

"We ask them, if they were a fly on the wall, what could they tell me about the subject," he said. "And some people are frankly better than others (at observing details). Oftentimes, it's a situation where the person doesn't realize they've been a witness to anything. And it impresses me when people can come up with the information."

For example, he said, he was called to a homicide in Pinetop/Lakeside. One of the witnesses was a woman who was sitting in traffic, waiting to make a left turn. In a fleeting moment, she glanced at a man exiting a parking lot in a hurry. That subject was the alleged suspect, and the women was able to give a fairly detailed description of that man.

While it's often hard to track, Powers says his success rate runs at about 50 percent. His drawing of the Wendy's robbery in December of 1997 was one of his successes. The suspect in that case was turned in after acquaintances recognized her from a Powers drawing that appeared in the Roundup.

Before heading back to the Valley of the Sun Monday, Powers said he was grateful that his department allows him the ability to help other departments -- and the chance to escape the heat.

Back at his office, he'll catch up on a few cases, talk to witnesses of other cases --and doodle.

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