SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — It all starts with the shape of the offender's chin.
When a composite drawing is initiated on the Salisbury Police Department's new FACES facial composite identification software, the victim or witness describing the suspect has plenty of choices for the chin shape, which forms the shape of the lower half of the face.
Gradually, the image takes more and more the shape of a face as the person describing the suspect chooses the closest eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth and other features that he or she remembers.
If something doesn't look right, it's very easy to replace a feature with another or make a change on the computer software. Features can also be moved up and down, and there are options for different hairstyles and preset tattoos, hats, earrings, glasses, facial lines, moles and scars that can be moved to the correct spot.
"You can always go back and make the modifications to the drawing that you need to," said Salisbury Police Capt. Scott Kolb.
Kolb said the book of facial features is more than 150 pages. The features, which are separated into categories based on general shapes, are numbered and duplicated in the computer program, from which a person can also choose features.
The FACES software is a tool that SPD has recently added to the investigative methods it can use to help catch suspects of serious crimes.
Detectives will ask the victim or witness for a description and the detective will take notes to help in the sketch process, Kolb said.
"There's still a lot of interviewing that goes on from the investigator to make sure that we make this as easy as possible for our victims and witnesses and they're just not overwhelmed," Kolb said.
He said all the SPD detectives have access to the program, but since purchasing it in mid-March, the department has not yet used it.
"It's a good thing that we haven't had to use it, because that means that other investigative measures have been working for us and the criminal element out there hasn't been so bad," Kolb said.
Kolb said composite sketches are sort of a last resort because other police work — such as canvassing the area and gathering fingerprints and other evidence — is more successful.
Investigators have to think about how evidence will hold up in court, so if a composite sketch helps identify a suspect but the real person looks different, that can affect how a jury sees the case, he said.
Kolb said if someone doesn't remember enough of the person's facial features or didn't get a chance to see enough of the face, investigators wouldn't be able to use the software.
The company that sells FACES, IQ Biometrix, donated software to the Career Technology Education criminal justice program at Parkside High School and the criminal justice department at Wor-Wic Community College in addition to donating additional software to SPD.
Mark Bowen, criminal justice instructor at Parkside High School, said students haven't really used the FACES software yet, but it will get much more use with the beginning of the next school year.
Bowen said it will be a unit by itself and also incorporated into other units.
"Basically, it's just another tool to show young people the advances that we've made in law enforcement in terms of technology," Bowen said.
John Moses, director of the criminal justice department at Wor-Wic, said instructors are currently going through training with the FACES software and deciding how to incorporate it into their lesson plans.
He said it will be used in both the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy and for other criminal justice students.
Moses expects to start using the software in the police academy in the first week of June.
Ways it may be used with students are having one partner describe someone as the other creates him or her, and using FACES in a mock emergency exercise that nursing students do, he said.
Though sketches are not a commonly-used tool, there have been times the Salisbury Police Department has opted to use them.
Kolb said a composite sketch was done by someone with the Delaware State Police to help find the perpetrator in a 1997 murder. In that still-unsolved case, Stephen Whitney was killed in the area of Fairground Drive, according to the SPD website.
Jinchul Kim, an associate professor at Salisbury University and head of the painting and drawing department there, was asked to do sketches by the Salisbury Police Department from time to time, beginning in about 2000, he said.
Kim said he suggested to the department to get software, so he is glad the agency now has it because of the good technology and because it's easy to operate.
Still, he feels an artist is beneficial for making sketches more realistic.
Kim, who drew the suspects using a digital drawing pad, said it normally took about two to three hours.
An image could potentially be created in minutes with the FACES software because of the pre-created features, but a detective will spend as long as it takes to get a picture that's as accurate as possible, Kolb said.
"Our goal is as soon as we hit the send button, the print button, to get this out to the media that someone sees that on the news (and) they're going to call up and say, 'Hey, it looks like this guy,' " he said.