What does a forensic artist do, exactly? And how do I become one? This interview with Trooper Sarah Krebs, forensic artist with the Michigan State Police will get you started. Fascinating!
How did you get started in forensic art?
My dad is also a forensic artist for the Michigan State Police, so when I joined the ranks, I guess you could say I had an “in”.
What type of forensic art do you do?
I do everything. I’d like to say I specialize in 3D reconstructions, but like most forensic artists, I do more composites than anything else. I dabble in every aspect of forensic art. Age-progressions, age-regressions, photo manipulations and trial displays are just some of the types of case work that I do.
Do you prefer one type over the other?
I still do all my composite “Old-School”: pencil and paper. Haven’t mastered any other medium (pastels, Photoshop, etc). It works for me. No complaints here. Makes it easy when I get called out and am…unprepared. I’ve done composites before on a whim with no photo reference, and only one sheet of computer paper and a #2 pencil. It turned out great and successfully identified the bad guy.
As far as facial reconstructions, I prefer 3D’s over 2D’s because I think they get more media attention and thus more coverage for the case. I think that is as important as the work you put into it. It will never get solved sitting on your desk.
Describe the amount of forensic art you do.
I am considered part-time as I also work as a road patrol Trooper…that’s right. I write tickets!!!! The Michigan State Police has eight forensic artists in our department, so we share the responsibilities statewide. I am quite busy as I work in one of the most crime riddled cities in the US. (DETROIT) What you may not know is that Michigan is one of the few states that has numerous departments boasting forensic artists. The Detroit Police Department has three full time artists, Dearborn PD, Oakland County, Muskegon PD, Kent County, Gladstone PD, Southfield PD…just to name a few. I don’t know if it’s in the water up here or what, but Michigan is a hot spot for forensic artists!
What qualities do you think are important to have as a forensic artist?
I think you have to be equally talented as an artist and as an interviewer. I have seen some really talented artists, be really terrible interviewers and vice-versa. I would rather see someone with mediocre art skills and great interview skills do a composite. As a reconstructionist, I think you need to have some sort of anatomy or anthropology education to truly understand how the soft tissues and the underlying bone structures relate to each other.
Having sculpture in your background doesn’t hurt either….the last thing I sculpted before a facial reconstruction was an ash tray in high school. I had a lot to learn. But, with each successful reconstruction I have had, I’ve learned a great deal of what I did right and what I could do to improve on the next one.
Do you think it is important for a forensic artist to be employed by a law enforcement agency?
I think it’s important when it comes to the chain of custody, but not totally necessary. If you are not affiliated with LE, I could see it being a problem with making a living off of forensic art. We normally work for other LE agencies and local morgues…neither of which usually has a budget for hiring outside artists, especially when they can get the job done for free (at least in Michigan). The Michigan State Police runs much like the FBI in that we are an assisting agency. We don’t charge for our services, but we also only do criminal cases. If you want a personal age progression to see what your baby may look like in eighteen years, you better look elsewhere!
Have you ever testified regarding your forensic art casework?
I laugh at this question, because as many times as I have had to testify to traffic tickets and felony arrests I’ve made, I have NEVER had to testify as to my forensic art. I have been subpoenaed many times and been sequestered, ready to testify, but the defense has never called me to the stand. I guess they’re scared. LOL.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your work?
That I work in a lab. People are always surprised that I have a cubicle, in a sea of cubicles. It’s the one with the skulls in it. No wonder why the secretaries stay out of my office.
What advice would you give for someone trying to enter the field?
I would be honest that this is an extremely specialized field and it is only a good fit for such a small margin of people. I would advise them to somehow get affiliated with law enforcement. If you are employed by the agency in some way (be it a CSI, a patrol officer or a dispatcher) it will open many more doors for you than if you are outside (freelance). Second, don’t expect it to be high paying, but expect it to be extremely rewarding.
What is the most satisfying aspect to your job?
Probably…(thinking…..) connecting the dots to bring closure to a family. Be it from a facial reconstruction that is that long awaited answer to someone’s identity, or a composite that fingers the bad guy, it is rewarding to know that the talents god gave me help people. Plain and simple.
What is the least satisfying?
Having to tell a family that their loved one has been identified, but they are deceased. With every case you see the tragic side of loss and heartbreak.
Do you remember your first composite drawing? How’d it go?
My first composite was on a home invasion that resulted in the homeowner getting his pinky finger bitten off when he struggled with the suspect. I did it at his home (trailer) in northern Michigan. By the time I was finished (almost four hours later), he had about twenty “Atta Boy” phone calls, and two of his buddies stopped by with cases of beer to celebrate with him. I learned a lot from this sketch. I no longer do them in people’s homes (unless there are circumstances I cannot get around). But, it was a successful sketch in that someone recognized him when the composite ran in the local paper. From what I remember, it was a terrible composite too (at least in my mind.) Beginner’s luck I guess.
Is there any case that stands out in your memory?
Several. One composite case was from an 87-year-old woman that was severely beaten in her home by three suspects that pretended to have broken down and needed to use her phone. I was called into the hospital to interview her because she wasn’t supposed to make it. She was so beaten that she could barely open her eyes. Her head looked like a pumpkin it was so swollen. The composite didn’t go well, she was in and out of consciousness and I told the Detective not to release it because I felt it wasn’t going to be useful to them.
Two weeks later he called me back and asked if I’d give it another go, as the victim was doing much better. I did the composite at her son’s house (who was a retired Taylor Cop); she was still bed-ridden but was much more alert and gave an excellent description of one of the suspects. She described him from looking up at him while he kicked her repeatedly in the head. The composite was profiled heavily by the media and a Crime stoppers tip led Police to the identity of all three suspects. All three were under the age of 19. Just this past February the victim came to an awards ceremony where I was given a Professional Excellence Award for my assistance in the case. I didn’t even recognize her. She looked so good. She said she was most upset about the whole incident because they had stolen her M&M Dispenser! It is cases like that that stand out in my memory.
Do you watch any of the crime shows, like CSI, Bones, etc?
No. I watch HGTV almost exclusively. I studied Anthropology in college, so BONES is pretty much out the window. I am glad they are making being an Anthropologist so sexy, but it’s aggravating watching them “hologram” my work into a 30 second process.
What else about you or your job would you like others to know?
It is the coolest job in the world! But it’s definitely not for everyone.
Trooper Sarah Krebs
Michigan State Police-Detroit Post #29
3050 West Grand Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48202
Many thanks to Trooper Sarah Krebs of the Michigan State Police for taking the time for this interview!
And thanks to the Ask a Forensic Artist blog for allowing us to feature this interview on our site.
For more info, visit Ask a Forensic Artist, the source for this interview (find the original here) and a fantastic blog devoted to the world of forensic art — that includes everything from composite drawing to post-morten imaging and facial reconstruction. With a host of FAQs, interviews, and valuable links, this anonymously run blog is working to help gain visibility for the field as a whole and for forensic artists individually. You can also check them out on Facebook.