He has helped put away armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists with the stroke of his pencil.
Innisfail Const. Chris Lavery is one of four Alberta RCMP composite sketch artists who is called in to help when there are no suspects or no leads in an investigation.
Often it is for the high-risk cases or serious person crimes such as sexual assault, homicide or abductions.
“The idea behind the sketch is to generate suspects,” said Lavery, who has worked as a certified police sketch artist for five years alongside his general constable duties.
“It’s not to prove who did it because you can’t prove who did it based on a sketch.”
A sketch artist can be called right away and sometimes by the time he is finished with a sketch, the person has been located.
Lavery, 37, shares sketching duties in the southern half the province with a Cochrane-based RCMP officer. But he has also been called to Fort McMurray and Yellowknife. There are only two full-time RCMP sketch artists in the country, in Lower Mainland British Columbia and in Nova Scotia.
Just last week, Lavery was in Red Deer to help with an attempted robbery and assault investigation in Deer Park.
“We don’t get 90 to 95 per cent hits on these things,” said Lavery. “It happens and it can be very helpful but if I am called in, that means we do not have anything at all. We don’t have a lead to go on at that point.”
But Lavery was quick to point out the sketch is just one of many investigative tools that police officers use in their investigations.
RCMP Cpl. Leanne Molzahn said they do not call sketch artists in on every police file, but definitely for serious person crimes where there is potentially a witness or a victim who may be able to provide an accurate description of the suspect.
“It is certainly benefit to any investigation where we can put a face out there,” she said. “There is generally somebody who is able to identify someone from the sketch or video surveillance footage.”
A sketch can also help eliminate suspects and let the public know that police are working on the case.
Since he started penning sketches in 2009, Lavery has drawn sketches that have identified suspects in a variety of crimes and eventually led to charges. He has probably sketched between 60 and 70 suspects over the years.
“It’s an investigative tool and if it is not used for serious matters, then we are not doing everything we can,” said Lavery. “That’s why it’s one of those things that we use a lot. Red Deer RCMP call me quite a bit.”
Like the other RCMP sketch artists in Alberta, Lavery is trained through the Stuart Parks Forensic Associate organization. It is owned and operated by the Montana-based husband and wife team of Rick Parks and Carrie Stuart Parks. Both have worked in crime labs and with the FBI.
Lavery has also taken two-week courses on forensic facial imaging with the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.
A sketch artist will work with a victim or witness after the investigating officer is finished with the initial questioning.
The artist will conduct a different type of interview to get the victim or witness’s memory going. Once the artist has descriptors to work with, he will have the person flip through a facial feature photo book before he begins drawing.
“It’s their sketch,” said Lavery. “I am done drawing when they tell me I am done drawing. If they are happy with it, it means something about that is right. I could look at it after and say I hate that drawing. But as I tell them, it is not a piece of art. I am not putting it on my wall at home. This is to identify the suspect.”
The process takes about three hours.
The goal is not to draw a perfect portrait of the suspect but to draw the facial features well enough so someone will recognize the criminal, says Lavery.
“Sometimes witnesses will tell you to do things that probably isn’t correct when it comes to facial features,” he said. “But when something about it is maybe exaggerated, something about that reminds them about the person.”
Every forensic artist has a different system to ensure the anatomy and facial structure is right.
“Because what we are doing is combining different facial features from different places,” said Lavery. “And if we put them together and they don’t fit together properly, then people won’t recognize the person. They will think there is something weird about that. That’s all they will remember: the weirdness. They won’t remember what we are trying to do.”
The eight-year police veteran lives in Red Deer and has worked in Innisfail for two years. Lavery answered about five years ago when a division-wide call went out for officers with some artistic skills.
In the United States, many law enforcement agencies are using computer-based systems.
Lavery said there are some good systems available but a computer does not have a police officer’s training or interview skills.
“The problem with that is the results you get with that are not what you call human looking,” he said.
“The anatomy is a little off. If you don’t have the training or the artistic ability to make things look human, you aren’t going to have as good a result with generated suspects.”
Lavery was the kid in class who could draw but he had no formal training until he became a sketch artist.
He remembers his first time in a bank robbery investigation in High River. He wasn’t happy with the drawing but he says it was a good example of “the witness is always right.”
“I wanted to add more detail but the witness was like, no that’s perfect, stop,” said Lavery. “So I stopped.”
Lavery says he is not sure the suspect was nabbed.
“Not that I know,” he laughed. “That would have been too good of a story.”