Super Sketchy: How A Cop Learned To Draw Suspects

Aug 7, 2014

Forensic artist Gregory Bean at work.
Forensic artist Gregory Bean at work.
Credit Courtesy of Gregory Bean

About 15 years ago, the Bellevue Police Department decided it needed an artist to sketch suspects.

A lieutenant stopped by Detective Greg Bean’s desk with a flyer that promised, “No experience necessary.”

“He throws it on my desk and says, ‘You’re going to art school,’” Bean said.

“And I said, ‘You are nuts.’”

Bean wasn’t an artist. He didn’t draw in his spare time. And the thought of art brought back painful memories of a middle school art class. “I was such an abject failure. It was such a horrible experience for me I swore I’d never go back,” he said.

But during a short drawing and interviewing class, something clicked.

Sketch by Gregory Bean.
Sketch by Gregory Bean.
Credit Courtesy of Gregory Bean

“I walked away actually being able to draw a decent face,” he said. “I was absolutely bowled over, stunned, amazing. Because never in a million years did I ever think I could do that. “

He was hooked. Bean promised himself from that point forward he would make a drawing every week, even if he didn’t get a case. In lieu of a suspect, he drew colleagues or his friends.

“Waiting for my kids at soccer practice I’d be drawing,” he said. “I had to stand in line for an hour for a passport. I stood in line and I drew for the whole time.”

Now Bean is retiring. In his 31 years as a cop, he has seen the progression of forensic illustrations in his department.

Before Bean started sketching at Bellevue Police Department witnesses looked at books filled with individual features: nose, ears, eyes. Officers lined up transparencies of features on a clipboard to create the image of a suspect.

“They were so bad,” Bean said.

For forensic artists, the key to a good sketch is a good interview.

“I explain to them that it’s a lot more fun that they think it’s going to be,” he said. At first, “everyone’s going to be nervous.”

Bean is chatty and personable, and he likes to tell stories. That personality goes a long way toward making the witnesses feel comfortable.

A suspect sketch by Gregory Bean.
A suspect sketch by Gregory Bean.
Credit Courtesy of Gregory Bean

Bean uses specific interviewing techniques to help witnesses use all of their senses to recreate the moments in which they saw the suspect. Witnesses and victims are more likely to compare suspects to people they know, rather than specify the type of nose.

“What they’re actually doing is not remembering as much as they’re recognizing,” Bean said. “And it’s the most human of reactions. You see somebody and you go, ‘That guy looks like my best friend from high school,’ or, ‘That guy has hair like my uncle.’ Or, ‘That girl walks like my high school girlfriend.’ We see things that we recognize in other people.”

Bean then interprets that information. Simple questions, such as what's the color of the car’s interior, can trigger descriptive details from witnesses.

He started working digitally some years back, which makes it easier to come up with a more exact image.

A witness may say, “That it looks just like a suspect, but her eyes are just fractionally closer together.”

Drawing in pencil, Bean would have had to pull out a fat eraser and start over. But with his program, a fix is just a cut, copy and paste away.

Bean has sketched suspects for more than a dozen other police departments. He has drawn sketches to show age progression in missing children and has reconstructed faces from recovered remains.

A professional picture of Danford Grant compared with Gregory Bean's sketch. (Photo: Danford Grant's LinkedIn, sketch provided by Gregory Bean)
A professional picture of Danford Grant compared with Gregory Bean's sketch. (Photo: Danford Grant's LinkedIn, sketch provided by Gregory Bean)

One of Bean’s most well-known drawings is of Danford Grant, the former attorney from Seattle who was convicted of raping five massage therapists.

As Bean nears his last day, his love of art has eclipsed his passion for police work.

Next month, Bean will begin a degree in illustration at Brigham Young University in Utah. 

But he won’t give up on police work. He promises to draw sketches for police departments even after retirement, communicating with them via a program similar to Skype.