Behind the scenes with the Boise Police sketch artist

How are those suspect sketches created?
Posted at 5:20 PM, Jan 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-02 00:17:25-05

BOISE, Idaho  — It's a concept we're familiar with from a young age: Certain characteristics about a person's appearance can make them stand out from others.

It's those memorable markers that make it possible for police sketch artists to create mirror images of wanted suspects, working only with clues provided by someone else's memory.

Detective Tonya Newberry has been the Boise Police Department sketch artist for five years. She's tasked with drawing life-like portraits of people she's never seen.

"I can only draw what the victim or witness tells me to draw," Detective Newberry explains.

But it's often her sketches that lead to an arrest.

"I had one that was a triple shooting, double homicide," Detective Newberry explained. "That suspect was caught."

The process begins with a series of questions, starting with, "What is their most outstanding feature?"

Detective Newberry will walk the victim or witness through the process by having them tell the story from the beginning while following up with questions like, "Did they have an accent?", "Did you see their hands?" and, "Were they wearing any jewelry?" It's all in an effort to jog memories. "And that's what you're hoping to do," Det. Newberry said. "Whether it be a mannerism, or some kind of scar or mark or something that can help identify that person."

Luckily, she doesn't need to work only with verbal directions from a distraught witness. Instead, she uses an entire book of images filled with hundreds of mugshots dialed in on specific facial features.

"We go through this whole list of eyes, eyebrows, and noses, and then I have something to go off," Det. Newberry explained.

So we put her to the test.

She asked me all the questions she would usually ask a witness, and I described 6 On Your Side's friendly, non-criminal, evening manager, Mike Sharp.

"Did you see his eyes? Do you know what color his eyes were?" she asked. "Light eyes, but he wears glasses," I told her as she jotted down notes.

"Do you feel like he has more or less forehead?" she asked as she began sketching.

And for the record, it's a lot harder than it seems. "See I could see how difficult this would be if you've only seen a person one time," I told her, "Because I see him every day and I don't know [which image] his eyes would be."

After jotting down notes on every feature, she allows the victim to return home, sending them rough drafts and asking for feedback.

"You can keep working with them until they go, 'That looks like the guy.'"

If you watch the video above, you'll see, the sketch does look like our guy!