Are Forensic Artists Qualified to do Facial Comparisons?

The answer that will apply to 99% of forensic artists is “no.” You may have read a chapter in a forensic art text book telling you how to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

This isn’t just me saying this, because there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is FISWG. That would be the “Facial Identification Scientific Working Group” and you better get used to hearing that name if you are currently doing image comparisons or thinking about it.

Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth: “The mission of FISWG is to develop consensus standards, guidelines and best practices for the discipline of image-based comparisons of human features, primarily face, as well as to provide recommendations for research and development activities necessary to advance the state of the science in this field.”

These guidelines are going to be published for all the world to see, and yes that means the courts.

If you venture into the realm of comparing one mug shot to another, or to a video surveillance image, and give your opinion on whether or not it is the same person, be prepared to defend that in court against people that probably have much more experience and training in this than you. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a serious reality check. To do this properly, you should have the the minimum training and experience that FISWG guidelines recommend. At just the basic level you must:

…be familiar with the history of facial analysis and principles of individuality; be able to distinguish between class and individual characteristics, as well as stable and transient characteristics; have knowledge of automated biometric systems; have an understanding of the principles of comparison; be able to assess facial image quality, know process of analysis , comparison, methods of comparison, effects of cognitive and comfirmation bias; knowledge of photography principles and hardware and settings inluding perspective, angle of view; understand digital images and compression; knowledge of facial anatomy, bone structure and musculature; be aware of judicial decisions that govern admittance of scientific evidence in court, chain of custody…”  

And that’s just a portion of the BASIC requirements; the list just keeps going on.  I can’t even begin to cover the advanced requirements, because it is boggling my mind, and you can read it all for yourself at   

If you qualify under the upcoming FISWG guidelines, then great. But if you don’t and you do image analysis as a forensic artist, please understand the risks you are taking, not just to the reputation of forensic art as a whole, but more importantly to the outcome of the case itself.

The days of just hauling off and declaring yourself an expert are coming to an end, and thank goodness for that. Forensic artists bring a lot to the table, we do an enormous amount of good, but we need to know our limitations too.

Karen T. Taylor Forensic Art and Illustration Karen T. Taylor Forensic Art and IllustrationKaren T. Taylor Forensic Art and Illustration Karen T. Taylor Forensic Art and Illustration