On April 30, an unknown person entered the class of an MCD-run school in north-east Delhi’s Bhajanpura, where students were waiting for their teacher after the assembly, and allegedly molested two minor girls. A complaint was lodged the next day and the police began investigating the case.
Since there were no CCTV cameras outside the school and zero leads to work with, the victims were called in to describe the accused, based on which a police team prepared a sketch of the suspect.
Soon, the sketch led the police to a suspect whose facial features matched those described by the victims. On May 6, a raid was carried out at the hideout of the suspect in Yamuna Vihar from where he was arrested.
From composite sketches to facial recognition software
In 2010, the police, which earlier used the help of artists to sketch portraits of suspects, switched to software to do the job and trained a team of constables and Sub-Inspectors to prepare digital sketches.
While hardware like the CCTVs, as well as technology such as the Facial Recognition System, have reduced the relevance of sketches, in areas that are not covered by cameras and in cases where the police have no leads to work with, sketches have often led the police straight to the culprits.
A senior police officer, who is trained in preparing sketches, told The Hindu: “Crimes often take place in areas or situations where there are no CCTV cameras. In such cases, we call in the eyewitnesses and help create the portrait of the accused. The sketch is then released to the media and shared with the public to obtain any clues on the accused’s whereabouts”.
The officer added, “There have been cases where police teams have shown sketches to locals of the area where a crime took place and the accused was nabbed within minutes”.
Commenting on the shift to technology to prepare sketches, the officer said that digitally prepared portraits have higher accuracy than handmade drawings.
“The constables and Sub-Inspectors are given one-week training at National Crime Records Bureau to use the software. It has a database of hundreds of facial features, which can be used to create sketches with the help of eyewitnesses. Earlier, the process used to take time and required skill but now any officer can learn the software in a few days,” he added.
Sub-Inspector Vinod Walia, who heads the IT department of Delhi police’s North district, said the accuracy of sketches depends on the ability of the officer to extract sufficient information from the eyewitness.
“We ask the victims/eyewitnesses to close their eyes and recall every small detail about the accused, such as a peculiar scar, tattoo or a birthmark… Every small detail is used to put together a near-identical face,” Mr. Walia said.
“The process of sketching can often take several hours as some victims may take time to remember details about the accused. Also, in cases of snatching it is often difficult for the victims to be able to observe the face of the accused properly,” the officer said.
Mr. Walia recalled an incident from 2014 at Kotwali where a murder was committed over a petty dispute and a sketch led the police to the suspect.
“We prepared a sketch of the accused and once it was shown to a local, he quickly pointed towards a man walking in the area, who turned out to be the accused,” Mr. Walia added.
“Till a year ago, we used to receive four to five requests for sketches in a week. Now we get two to three cases a month,” a constable working with the police’s IT Department said.
The Delhi police’s Crime Records Office (CRO) is the nodal unit for making sketches and most of the districts send sketch requests to the CRO as and when a need arises.
When sketches misled police into arresting the wrong person
DCP (North) Sagar Singh Kalsi said there have been instances in the past where sketches have misled police into arresting the wrong person. However, he added that sketches are not used as the primary tool to track an accused.
“A suspect’s sketch provides a line into the investigation as the police then work to identify the closest match to the sketch, which is better than trying to find a needle in a haystack,” the DCP said.
Sharing his perspective on the evidentiary value of sketches, advocate Sarim Naved said, “Even if an accused is arrested by the police based on a sketch, the eyewitnesses and the complainant will have to identify the person in court. The sketch plays no role at that point”.