What is takes to draw identikits of crime suspects: ‘It’s all about empathy’

2019-02-25 11:55
Pietermaritzburg identikit artist Warrant Officer Rose Kleynhans. (Ian Carbutt)

Pietermaritzburg identikit artist Warrant Officer Rose Kleynhans. (Ian Carbutt)

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Empathy, patience, a flare for drawing and attention to detail - these are the characteristics needed to draw identikits of crime suspects based on descriptions by victims of trauma and violence.

Pietermaritzburg’s only police identikit artist, Warrant Officer Rose Kleynhans who is one of six in KZN, told Weekend Witness that drawing up identikits "is no easy task" and can be as heartbreaking for the artist as it is traumatic for the victim.

With 25 years’ experience under her belt in the police, Kleynhans worked in the Pietermaritzburg Child Protection Unit (CPU) for 13 years before deciding it was time for a career change that led her to becoming an identikit artist.

'I have always liked drawing...'

She wanted to stay in the police and work with people. "I have always liked drawing and graphics so when I saw a vacancy for an identikit artist I applied."

Kleynhans said she had been on various different courses over the years and continues to do so when new programmes and technology is introduced.

"It was a lengthy process. We had to go for training for everything that involves graphics, photoshop and computers," she said.

"I love working with people, and my background in the CPU definitely gives me an advantage on how to handle sensitive and traumatic situations.

"The people who walk through my door are often very traumatised. They have either been raped, gang-raped, assaulted, kidnapped and so on. My background makes it easier for me to understand where the victim is coming from and how to empathise with them.

"We find that the more severe the trauma of a crime is, the more likely an accurate description of the suspect will be given.

'It does not go away...'

"Severe trauma will leave almost every detail of the perpetrator etched in one’s mind. It does not go away."

Kleynhans said it is important to know how to work with victims of abuse.

"This work does break your heart. It is tough and definitely not an easy thing."

She will spend between one hour to an hour and 30 minutes with a witness.

"When we are done, it can be very emotional because it will be the first time they see their attacker or rapist since the incident. They see the face on my computer screen and will get panicky or start crying. That is also how we know we have a good identikit, unfortunately."

She said that 95% of the identikits she does, are men, and only about 5% are women.

How the process unfolds

Showing Weekend Witness the process of creating an identikit, Kleynhans said they are using a fairly new programme that Scotland Yard had to train them on.

Starting with a basic face shape, Kleynhans listens to the description from the victim, tweaking certain features until he/she can recognise the person as the attacker.

For every facial feature, there are at least a dozen variants for the identikit contained in the programme.

Once the basic face shape, nose and shape of eyes has been done, Kleynhans can start to sharpen the nose, make eyes more round, change the shape of eyebrows, or make the forehead more pronounced until a clear picture of a suspect comes together.

"We can make the cheek bones higher, change the eye colour, add hair, add wrinkles and scars and other remarkable features that may have stood out to the victim," she said.

She said one needs either a degree in graphic design or fine arts to apply to be an identikit artist and don’t necessarily have to be in the police service to apply for such a job.

"I think our department is underutilised and that people are not aware that they can come to us.

"It is a friendly, safe and empathetic environment and I have not turned anyone away," she said.

Identikit artists are part of the forensics division and can be contacted on 033 845 8573.

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Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  crime

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