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Sketch artists help collar the bad guys
ARLINGTON It seems every newspaper and TV news broadcast has one, those familiar police sketches of the latest perp, suspected of involvement with the latest crime.
But those hasty drawings arent just art, they are a vital tool in solving crimes and helping police departments stay connected with their communities.
For the Smokey Point area, those drawings were the key in dealing with a slew of robberies this summer at espresso stands. Businesses were hit multiple times just days apart, in several jurisdictions. And while local law enforcement quickly responded with K-9 teams, search helicopters and police checkpoints, it was the work of a soft-spoken woman from the Arlington Police Department that may have done the most to put a pair of prolific robbers behind bars.
Val Copeland is a support officer who gets called out at all times of day of night to sit and listen to victims of crimes. Shaken, crying, scared out of their wits, they need a soft touch and gentle prompting to be of much help. But that challenge is part of the job and one of the biggest rewards for Copeland, a six-year veteran.
When someone is really distraught, you need to be really patient with them, Copeland said, describing her bedside manner as she helps a crime victim through the emotional ups and downs. Its pretty obvious when someones sobbing that youre not going to get information out of them.
But thats the goal, especially when a crime is fresh or ongoing, such as last years carjacking when two young children were taken for a ride. Copeland worked that case, and she got kudos from one victim of the espresso bandits.
Leah is a barista at Z to B Espresso in Lakewood who was working by herself when a man in his early 20s approached and told her he was robbing her. After taking the cash, he fled on foot, sparking a police chase and search that turned up nothing. Then Copeland arrived.
She was very nice, very mellow. She said Take your time, She was very comfortable to work with, Leah recalled. She asked that her last name not be printed.
I think she did a great job with the description I gave her. She drew exactly what I gave her.
There would be more drawings, and quickly, as the man-and-wife team hit other nearby stands, including the Cabooso Espresso multiple times. Snohomish County sheriffs detective Christopher Leyda got a piece of the action as he was called to other incidents nearby. As the bandit switched his clothing and appearance several times, the sketches changed dramatically, with the exception of the core elements of the mans face. Those are the constants a good artist will rely on, according to Leyda.
A Marysville resident, Leyda has been a deputy for almost seven years and is a detective working out of the special victims unit in Everett. It helps that often he is not only the sketch artist but officer working the case.
Its easier to have the artist be the lead investigator; We already know the details of the case, Leyda explained.
While the sheriff typically has a sworn officer doing sketches, in a pinch they can rely on a civilian or a support officer like Copeland. Jake Funston is the other deputy who draws for the sheriff.
Leyda stressed the need to be sensitive, especially in dealing with victims of violent crimes, such as the rape in Marysville West last month. Leyda did that drawing, working with the victim, taking pains to get a description without adding to the hurt. In all his years, he said he has only had one person refuse to give a description right away; some might want to wait a while, but nearly all want to help catch the perpetrator.
I pretty much tell the person Im here for you, not for me. We can do this whenever you want, Leyda said. Most people are like Yeah, Ive got it in my head, lets go, lets go. They want to get it out there.
The artists typically interview the victim, then make a sketch back at their office. It can take as little as an hour to as much as four or five, depending on the case, the witnesses and other factors. Neither Copeland or Leyda make their drawings in front the victim, and both said they rarely have to make major changes to their first drafts. They key is listening carefully and following up with key questions. They rely on books of faces, arranged by shapes, for head, jaws, cheekbones, and use that as a starting point. No matter how fast the incident happened, there is always something there to remind you, Copeland said. An accent, a limp, something is sure to come in play.
Even though they think they didnt see something, they did, Copeland said. One lady told me his hands smelled like dirt. You never know what detail might help later on.
Copeland does drawings for the Marysville Police Department on a regular basis, and Lake Stevens as well. She said it essential to work together with her peers at Snohomish County, and the three artists will frequently email each others work to see if they are chasing the same suspect. That helped in the espresso bandits, as a former employer recognized the man he had fired just weeks before.
Darin Rasmussen is the sergeant in charge of detectives for Marysville police, and he sketches when time allows, but mostly relies on Copeland these days because hes busy, and shes a better artist. He said a police sketch is similar to a witnesss statement, only an officer is helping recreate their memory. That doesnt mean the police take it for gospel; in fact, the first thing officers do is to try to eliminate anyone fingered by the public from a sketch. They use a photo line-up to make sure they have a viable suspect before they proceed to investigate him or her.
Its not conclusive evidence, but its a first step, Rasmussen explained.
If the crime was committed by a complete stranger, a sketch is often the only tool police have to work with, he added. Of the many press releases and notifications issued by law enforcement, sketches seem to get the most response, according to Rasmussen. He estimated the department releases about a dozen drawings to the public each year and relies on Copeland for most of them.
Sketches will generate a lot of activity if the crime is particularly noteworthy to the public, Rasmussen said.
Lake Stevens Police Chief Randy Celori seconded that notion.
I would say we get more tips once we release a sketch, Celori said. A sketch artist plays an important role in the entire law enforcement community. Its a great resource to have.
He cited the years-long effort to capture the Unabomber, Theodore Kuczynski, which relied heavily on sketches made from whitenesss descriptions.
The sooner we can get a description out to the public the better chance we have of apprehending them, Celori said.
Copelands duties include clearing abandoned cars, directing traffic at accident scenes and other jobs, getting the call to make a sketch is the highlight of her day, or night.
Thats the favorite part of my job, Copeland said. Ive always been jealous of those people who have jobs they love. I was driving to Lake Stevens the other day I went woo-hoo and I realized I was one of them.