BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Tucked away in a quiet office at the Bakersfield Police Department headquarters is a small room. It's where investigators work with victims to piece together a picture of suspects.
They're called composite images.
To understand the process, BPD staged an incident where my cell phone was stolen so that I could be in the victim role and create a composite.
"I just need to get a little bit of information from you," said Lisa Wedeking-White, a police lab technician with the department, "Was your assailant a male or female? Was she Black, White or Hispanic?"
She took detailed notes as we established a baseline description, then we moved to the computer. There I worked through five prominent facial features.
We started with the hairline, scrolling through dozens of styles. I picked anything I thought resembled the suspect, keeping in mind that the color of the hair can be changed. Then, we narrowed down my choices to the one I thought was best.
From there it was on to the jawline, repeating the same process.
Then came the eyes, nose and lips.
The more of the face I created, the more I became confident that it matched the suspect.
After i made my selections, Wedeking-White moved over to a different computer to perfect it. With quick clicks of her mouse, she smoothed out the puzzle I created to look as natural as possible.
In a real investigation, Wedeking-White would then meet with detectives. But since I wasn't really a victim, we went straight to the reveal; meeting my suspect face-to-face and seeing how I did.
Sgt. Nathan McCauley explained how valuable those photos are to the detectives.
"More so than just the words whether it be verbally or written down somewhere describing 'hey this person looks like a,b,c,d,e," he said. "Having that picture to go along with it...might sparks someone's memory in a different way."
The technicians who work with victims go through the exact same process every time. They say typically if the person got a good look at the suspect it doesn't matter if they come in within minutes, days or a week. The victim is typically able to piece together an image.
"I think that a lot of the times when someone is a victim," said Wedeking-White. "That particular incident stands out so strongly in their mind that it's a face that they can't forget."
Wedeking-White says the only victims she thinks have a tougher time are juveniles, because they're not able to articulate what the person looked like.
"I think adults just, you know you're trained a little better to pay attention to your surroundings. a juvenile doesn't necessarily," she said.
Despite the possibility that victims may unintentionally get the composite wrong, BPD said it's still a valuable tool to use in their investigation.
"We're hoping that they're going through the process as honestly as possible," said McCauley. "In most cases, victims and witnesses are absolutely trying to do everything they can then i think it's worth trying more times than not."