ORLANDO, Fla. - When crime happens in Central Florida, one of the first questions police have is, "who did it?" Many times that answer comes from a witness to the event or the victims themselves.
Detective Steve Fusco with the Orange County Sheriff's Office has made a career of turning the memories of those witnesses into life like sketches used to identify and catch suspects on the run.
Fusco's process takes the identifying features of a suspects face, one-by-one assembling them like a puzzle to create the images that will eventually make their way onto wanted posters or the evening news.
The talented artist first sketches these features on paper before eventually finishing the process by adding details with his computer.
"Everybody has eyes, a nose and a mouth," he says, "but there are certain things that stand out about those features."
Fusco's work has helped in cases throughout the state and country.
Robbery Detective Jason Sams with the Orange County Sheriff's Office knows all to well the importance of composite sketches.
"Without a good description it's nearly impossible to do my job," Sams says.
When a violent robbery happened at a Metro PCS on University Boulevard, the surveillance video from the store was useless. A composite was created based on the victim's description. Within minutes a call came in from someone who recognized the person.
"It looked like the sketch artist nearly drew his drivers license photo," Sams says as he compares the rendering to a photo of the person who eventually confessed to the crime.
Fusco says the biggest challenge for a witness to overcome is the feeling that their description will identify the wrong person.
"Witnesses, they come in here, they are traumatized," Fusco said. "They are apprehensive about this whole process of doing a composite because they don't want to get the wrong person arrested."
On the contrary, composites are used to eliminate everyone who doesn't fit the description.
"This is an investigative tool. It helps us eliminate people. It focuses the investigation to an individual and there has to be evidence to support that," he said. "Nobody makes an arrest on a composite alone."
Whether you are a victim or a bystander there are some tips you can follow to be a better witness.
- The first thing you should do is make sure you are safe
- As soon as you become aware that something isn't right, and you're sure you are safe, try to freeze the moment in your mind. Take a mental snapshot of everything that went on.
- As soon as you can, record what you remember. Write it down on paper or your hand if you have to. You can also use the voice memo feature on your phone to record your thoughts. Short term memory is just that, short, so recording it as soon as possible will help you recall it later.
- Details are important and some are more important than others. The more unique the observation and the less changeable it is the more useful it will likely be.
- Physical characteristics such as height, weight and eye color are difficult to change. Pay particular attention to scars, tattoos and birthmarks as these can be particularly important details.
- Personal identifiers can also be used to identify a suspect. Things like accents or speech impediments.
- Jewelry and piercings along with shoes can be useful to describe a suspect because these items are less likely to be changed after a crime.
Your detail perception and degree of recall can be improved with practice. Try making a game of noting license plate numbers while driving. After passing someone on the street, wait a moment and then list everything you can remember about them.
The biggest boost to your recall memory may be the simplest to achieve and that's simply paying attention to your surroundings. People are spending more time looking down at their phone and tuning out the world around them. Not paying attention can also make you more likely to be a victim of crime yourself.
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