What it's like to describe a 'suspect' for the AFP
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What it's like to describe a 'suspect' for the AFP

There's something both beautiful and eerie about the forensics building at AFP Majura.

It's a stunning piece of architecture but it sits in deathly silence, with nothing but the sound of the wind whispering through Majura pines to keep you company on the long walk from your car. It's as if the intelligence building from Criminal Minds was accidentally plonked on top of the sheriff's station in Twin Peaks.

I'm at the forensics building to learn about the process behind an AFP 'face-fit' - the image of a 'suspect' developed by artists to assist police in the investigation of a crime. My interest was piqued a couple of weeks ago when police released this face-fit image of a man who allegedly assaulted a 12-year-old boy in the Canberra suburb of Rivett.

Pulling together my face-fit with the help of AFP forensic artists Michelle (far left) and Melanie (closest to screen).

Pulling together my face-fit with the help of AFP forensic artists Michelle (far left) and Melanie (closest to screen).

Photo: Karleen Minney

It shocks me that in the modern world of CCTV and mobile phones, we still rely on face-fits (formerly police sketches) to assist with solving crimes. And I wonder whose day job it is to listen to witness descriptions and compile faces.

The AFP is more than willing to answer my questions. I'm invited to study the process with the help of forensic artists Melanie and Michelle, a former high school teacher and "a jack of all trades", respectively. Both women work with victims and witnesses to pull together face-fits for AFP and ACT Policing cases.

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There are four people in the AFP's forensic art team and these days a face-fit is less about your talents with a 2B lead pencil and more about your Photoshop and airbrushing skills.

Melanie and Michelle take me to a private interview room to start the process. They tell me witnesses are generally nervous about the procedure, and the first hour or so of an interview is spent building rapport and helping the witness overcome any fears.

The 'suspect' I'm describing for Melanie.

The 'suspect' I'm describing for Melanie.

Photo: Karleen Minney

The interview room is dark and gloomy and very NCIS. A mobile face-fit kit is set up in front of a row of huge monitors. The mobile kits can be - and often are - transported to hospitals, homes or anywhere else a witness might be confined to or feel more comfortable providing a description.

I'm shown a photo of our 'suspect' - who happens to be one of my favourite actors but also a man who caused me untold nightmares in the early 1990s when Silence of the Lambs was released. I stare at the photo for about four seconds and then it's over to my memory.

I'm asked to give a general description of the suspect. "Caucasian male, late 60s."

My face-fit of Sir Anthony Hopkins.

My face-fit of Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Photo: AFP Media

I sit with a mobile screen on my lap, a bit like an iPad, and we work "from the edge of the face inwards". Everything is done digitally.

Melanie helps me sort through row after row of photos of varying face shapes. I ask to see "the older gentlemen first".

I scroll for what feels like hours and land on a face shape I'm happy with. Then I have to select hair. Same process: scrolling, scrolling through photos of various hairstyles - I laugh out loud at a photo that looks exactly like Bob Hawke's hair in his prime in 1985 - and select a hairstyle I'm happy with.

The eyes are next. Easy. The mouth is also pretty easy. But the nose is hard. I mean, if you were forced to describe the nose of the colleague-sitting-next you at this very second, what would you say?

Also, photos of noses look very, very - how do I put this? - phallic when you're poring over row after row of them. I get the giggles before remembering where I am.

All the while Melanie assists me, pulling my top three options for hair, nose and eyes into a temporary space before slotting the final features onto the face shape I've chosen. She adjusts skin tone so all the "parts" match. She cuts a few inches off the forehead and bingo! My face-fit looks like an exact replica of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Sort of.

While my final face-fit is loading I ask Melanie if witnesses are traumatised in those final moments when a face they've been thinking about finally comes together on the screen.

"It's different for everyone," she admits. "But we do tend to get a much more defined facefit from people who are victims rather than witnesses. When a trauma happens, it's like time slows down."

I have to admit, the whole process is stressful. I feel like I've just sat an HSC maths exam. The concentration required is full on and the self-doubt is real. I feel like I have to get every detail right, and it's given me a headache.

But as Michelle keeps telling me, a face-fit doesn't have to be picture perfect. "It's there to assist police with their inquiries. People do put a lot of pressure on themselves."

I ask if, as artists, they ever compare their face-fits with the people eventually arrested for the crimes. They do, but it's not as big a deal as you'd think.

"We're only ever as good as the person describing the suspect," Melanie explains.

So how do you put yourself in good stead to provide a description if you've witnessed a crime?

"If there's time and it's safe to do so, document your observations of the person or people involved, including other details like licence plate numbers," Melanie says.

"This can be done on whatever medium is available – on paper, a mobile phone or voice recording.

"There are also apps that have been developed for mobile devices to help collect and preserve evidence about events you've experienced."

If you have witnessed a crime, you can contact Crime Stoppers anonymously on 1800 333 000 (24/7). If it is an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).

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