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Drawing conclusions
A police composite artist talks about the craft of catching a crook

I wanted to meet a police sketch artist. I wanted to see a hard-nosed cop limn a face with an artist’s delicate touch. I wanted to sit in a dingy precinct, across the table from some gruff and taciturn patrolman, watching as some scumbag’s ugly mug emerged slowly from the page.

So I put out an APB. But after a couple days of calling around, I realized just what a rare beast the forensic artist is. Finding one, it seems, is as almost as difficult as tracking down a burglar on the lam.

"We haven’t released a sketch in a long, long time," said FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz. "These days, with bank robberies, you’ve got the camera in the bank. And we haven’t had a kidnapping in a long time."

The Cambridge Police said they seldom use them. Repeated calls to the Staties went unanswered. In Somerville, the process has been computerized. "I don’t think it’s as glamorous as you think it is," said Captain Michael Devereaux. "It’s just a basic computer program, and you sit in a room with a victim or witness, and you concoct a picture." (Subsequent calls determined that even the computer isn’t much used.) Devereaux suggested that, should I find an actual composite artist, I ask him how much work he gets nowadays.

Criminy! Where the hell are these charcoal-smudged John Q. Laws? I’ve seen the sketches of the taxicab rapist, the MetroWest rapist, and all those other perps in the papers. Who drew them?

MIT patrolman Donald "Dusty" Miller did. Along with his friend Jack Skinner of the Concord Police Department, he’s one of the only police sketch artists in Greater Boston. He moonlights, freelancing for police departments in Cambridge, Arlington, Framingham, Medford, and Somerville whenever they call him.

Often showing up at precincts late at night in the bitter cold, he talks tremulous old ladies through detailed descriptions of their attackers, coaxes telling facial features from sobbing rape victims. He fills out mimeographed Identification Fact Sheets. ("EYE COLOR: ... UNUSUAL TEETH: ... SCARS/TATTOOS: ...") He sketches and erases and sketches some more, shading in the sallow complexions and sunken cheeks of imagined faces. All in the hope that that one detail, drawn just so, will be salient enough for someone else to recognize, enough for some detective or beat cop to catch their quarry.

"It’s a very hard thing to do," Miller says. "I’m drawing something that’s in someone else’s mind." But it’s something he does better than any computer out there.


"I was always good in aht," says Dusty Miller, 46, in a meat-and-potatoes Woburn accent.

I ask if he’d been to art school — picturing, for a moment, this burly member of the thin blue line hanging out with chain-smoking pink-haired hipsters, sitting through critiques, comparing portfolios.

It turns out, he did. But the Butera School of Art on Beacon Street, specializing in commercial-art courses, is a bit more utilitarian than the Museum School or Mass Art. Miller went there to learn sign painting, and upon graduation he ran his own design company for 25 years.

No rarified aesthete, he. "I know nothing about the art world. I don’t want to know anything about the art world. Just not my thing. I have the least desire to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. I did it all in high school. Picasso, all that? Sorry."

No favorite artists?


Does he draw in his spare time?

"No. I got five kids at home. My time is very limited. All I used to do is cartoons. Used to do cartoons of people, draw the guys at work. Used to pretty much bust balls."

What about comic books? Any favorite cartoons growing up?

"Nope. Nope. No. None. None. I never read comic books. Mad magazine, though. I used to get that. Jeez, there’s some great artwork in Mad magazine. I used to study that. When they do movie stars, those pictures are right on."

About 10 years ago, Miller got sick of the sign-painting business. One of his semi-regular jobs was applying the lettering to the sides of police cars. And he had a lot of friends in law enforcement. So he became a cop. He worked in the Carlisle Police Department for three years, then went to the MIT campus police, where he’s been ever since.

Word about his drafting skill got around quickly. And soon enough he found himself putting the knack for physiognomy he learned from Mad magazine, and that sure hand he’d used to render precise lettering on signs, to a different use.

"Cambridge [Police Department] just called me one night. February. 10:30. Guy was just stabbing people. The guy was gonna kill somebody. They had to catch this kid."

So he met with a victim, asked him what he saw. Then he got to work. Drew the big ears. The pudgy nose. The puffy parka, drawn tight around his neck. "They caught him within a week."

It was an auspicious start. But all these years later, with lots of successful work under his belt — he estimates that 80 percent of his drawings have led to arrests — Miller gets composite work only erratically. He guesses he’s done 20 or 30 drawings in the last six or seven years. They seem to come in streaks, however: he’s done two in the past month.

One reason is that police departments vary widely in the stock they place in forensic drawings’ usefulness. "I’d like to be the go-to guy in Boston," says Miller. "But I don’t see many sketches coming out of the BPD. I dunno if they use ’em, or what. Some departments believe in it more than others." (After a half-dozen phone calls, my request to the Boston Police Department remains in media-relations limbo.)

Composite sketches, says officer Pasquarello of the Cambridge PD, are "one of those double-edged swords. Someone will look at a sketch and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s not the person.’ And of course. It’s not the person. It’s only a sketch."

Also, victims’ recall is often less than total. "During a robbery, you ask people that have had a gun shoved in their face, ‘Does the guy look five-foot-seven?’ And people are funny. They’ll say, ‘Well, he’s only five-foot-three.’ To me what’s long hair is not long hair to you. So sometimes it’s difficult." Of course, even when the drawing is spot-on, there are problems. "We can put a sketch out of a guy with a mustache, and if he knows we’re looking for him, he’ll shave the mustache off." All the same, says Pasquarello, "Sketches do help. They eliminate a lot of suspects."

Because, says Miller, "it doesn’t even always have to look like the guy. Sometimes you just give the detectives a direction to go in. I did a drawing for Cambridge a few weeks ago. I thought the girl ... my honest opinion, she saw the guy, but she’s not describing this guy to me at all. This just isn’t working out. But I continue with the drawing anyway. I don’t think we’ve got anything here. She can’t even describe the guy’s eyes. If you can’t describe someone’s eyes, what did she actually see? But a week later, I get a call from a detective. ‘Hey, Dusty! I got a line on this guy!’ Some guy in Harvard Square. He fits the build, and everything else. She gave me enough. It was basically based on the guy’s hairdo and his mustache."

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Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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