Melissa Cooper (pictured) says she might be the least intrusive person in the world, but as a forensic sketch artist, her day consists of prying into the lives of strangers who find themselves in odd and sometimes tragic situations to help solve crimes.
“I’m always scared to ask people questions, but in this environment I suddenly take on a different role and it’s definitely a huge bonding experience,” she says.
Based between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cooper’s work has taken her everywhere from hospital emergency rooms, to police departments, movie sets and museums. She previously rendered the first 2-D facial construction on the only human found and excavated in the La Brea Tar pits who turned out to be 9,000 years old.
Armed with an art degree, law enforcement and intense forensic artistry training, Cooper’s 10 year career and passion for scientific art has nabbed homicide suspects, helped identify John and Jane Does post-mortem, and reconstructed early childhood pictures often missing from the lives of adopted children by using a procedure she created called Age Regression, where she takes a step backwards to draw them at a younger age.
Being a Forensic Artist is More Than Just Sketching Faces
Being talented enough to sketch based on a person’s memory means having a unique skill set: successfully dealing and extracting information from people who are in difficult situations. “The whole point of it is to be in a pretty calming environment for the victim,” Cooper says of the initial process. “They’ve been dealing with officers and being questions by people in uniforms.”
When she’s on the job, she calmly explains the procedure to nervous witnesses who often think their contributions won’t be up to snuff.
“They always think that they can’t do it, no one thinks they can describe someone, but I tell them don’t worry about it, if we’re not able to do it it’s my fault, it’s not because of [them].” To date Cooper has never had an instance where a sketch interview hasn’t produced a solid rendering.
It’s Always Questions First, Drawing Later
There’s a strategy to what order she asks questions in and the request for information that goes beyond age range and body type. “I ask, what kind of look did they have on their face – did they look angry or happy or drunk? And people have different expressions, sometimes that expression is one that someone can identify them by.”
Sometimes, the most unusual, unrelated detail can solidify the connection between art and life.
Cooper remembers one case where she asked for additional details. “This girl thought about it and said it was his cologne, I can’t stop smelling his cologne. And at that very moment I thought that was the best answer I could possibly wish for – sense is the one thing that brings more memory back, the moment she’s smelling the cologne, I know that she’s right there.”
Do Cooper’s Sketches Help Catch Criminals? Yes.
While the helpfulness of forensic sketches to solve crimes has been debated, Cooper (who does not use any reference photos, but draws from witness memory) has had her share of success. In one huge case, composite sketches of three suspects in a homicide investigation were put across the city and in a few days she got word that the suspects’ friends were pulling the fliers down. “That was a good sign,” she says. “I think they got them within less than a week.”
When she began training with forensic sketch artist Gil Zamora of Dove commercial fame, at the beginning of her career, a sketch she drew for a homicide case successfully helped catch the suspect soon afterwards. The booking photo and Cooper’s sketch turned out to be near identical. “They pulled up both of the images and I got it spot on,” she says.
Despite her accuracy, she does point out that there’s a reason why police work off of sketches and not portraits: when it comes to forensic art, less is definitely more. “There’s a reason why it’s a sketch,” she says. “If you do it too detailed it’s going to be more detrimental, it’s not going to be beneficial at all.”
Her Police Work has Given Her Lie Detector-Like Senses
Cooper’s police work has also given her a front row seat into the spectrum of human behavior. Cooper can tell someone isn’t being truthful just by observing how people talk and behave as they meet with her. When I say “tell me about their nose,” they’ll tell me that it’s kind of like mine, they’ll tend to describe my features because that’s what they’re looking at – or they’ll change their mind very dramatically.
Has Cooper Ever Received Any Odd Requests?
Cooper has gotten requests in the past by families who find her work online and commission her to do an age progression sketch of their deceased child so that they can see what they might have looked like. It’s an experience that leaves Cooper feeling unsettled . “They’re so grateful and very happy, but I can’t see that being a positive thing,” she says. “I feel like I almost don’t want to do it, I don’t think it will be therapeutic.”
Will She Ever Lose Her Job to Digital Rendering?
Forensic sketching is kind of a dying art – many cities don’t have the resources to pay for on-staff artists and computer software has replaced the need for hand drawn sketches, but digital composites don’t exactly have a higher success rate than an artist’s sketch. In fact, it’s even lower.
“[The process] needs to have a more therapeutic environment,” Cooper says of the necessity for witnesses and victims to feel comfortable and make a connection with the artist. “The more comfortable they are, the more you know about interviewing techniques, the more accuracy you’re going to get.”
“You’re just not going to get the details that someone describes,” Cooper says. “Sometimes people will say there’s tiny little slant or squint in their eye, you can’t just do that on a computer.” There’s also the human element of it all.
Photo credits: Melissa Cooper