Police Armed with Pencils: When Crime Fighting Gets Sketchy

Two former art majors are putting their drawing skills to work fighting crime in Loudoun County.

Deputy First Class Kathy Franck of the Sheriff’s Office and Leesburg Police Department Detective Kevin Zodrow have quite a bit in common. The two were in the same class of the police academy together, and their shared love of art and visual communications is what is driving their public service today.

Franck and Zodrow, along with Zodrow’s colleague, LPD Detective Douglas Shaw, are the three sketch artists countywide that investigators rely on to capture accurate depictions of criminals. The mediums they use to compose their sketches, however, are different. While Zodrow and Shaw compose their sketches digitally, Franck is one of the few remaining members of the sketch artist community who puts together her sketches the old-fashioned way: paper and pencil.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be about 100 full-time forensic sketch artists. Locally, it’s a part-time job that does not require 40-hour a week attention, with Franck spending most of her time stationed at the Adult Detention Center, and Zodrow and Shaw doing detective work. Zodrow has done about four sketches in the past year, while Franck does about two a month for the sheriff’s office. When called upon, they are happy for the opportunity to hone their skills.

Both Franck and Zodrow spent most of their college years studying art and visual communications. The two, however, found themselves drawn to police work, with both joining their respective forces in 2007. Prior to joining the sheriff’s office, Franck was employed by the county’s Animal Control department.

In a trend that’s mirrored nationwide, neither agency has enough need for a full-time sketch artist and, up until 2015, all of LPD’s sketches were handled by the sheriff’s office. But that fall, Zodrow and Shaw heard about a training course on how to do criminal sketches digitally, and they jumped at the opportunity. Over a two-day training session on the Michael Streed Sketch Cop Solutions program, the two were able to practice their skills via the computer program and learn the intricacies of the process to make their sketches as accurate as possible. The training included role playing, with the two describing a sketch to each other and seeing how closely the sketch would mirror the image, and also practicing with cases that involved aging or one changing the appearance of their subjects.

“We did a little bit of everything,” Zodrow said. “So, you come back to the department confident that if we had to do this right now that we could launch the program and go right to work.”

Leesburg Police Department Detective Kevin Zodrow uses a computer program to digitally sketch wanted suspects. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
It takes about two hours to put together a good sketch, Zodrow and Franck agree. The two use books or, in Zodrow’s case, the computer program to show victims and witnesses examples of every minute facial detail to depict the perpetrator as best as possible. For Zodrow, he begins filling in the sketch digitally based on the victim’s or witness’ description of everything from the shape and color of their eyes, to their hairline and everything in between. After showing the sketch, if any particular detail is off then he can pull up the computer database, where thousands of options for eyes, ears, eyebrows and more can be accessed.

Franck starts with a grid and goes through the books of facial feature options with her interviewee to put together her sketch.

It’s a process that involves engaging the victim or witness in what can be a particularly emotional interview. The sooner a deputy can conduct an interview following an incident, the more accurate the sketch.

Most victims or witnesses focus on a key facial feature, and both Zodrow and Franck said they begin their sketch focusing on what has stuck out the most to the victim or witness.

“If there’s a feature or something that sticks out that’s what we need to make emphasis of because that’s what’s going to stick out to other people as well,” Zodrow said. “Scars, tattoos, big lips, those are things you almost have to exploit so other people can recognize [the person].”

“Most people notice the eyes; no one ever notices the ears unless they’re sticking way out or have big earrings. Noses are pretty distinct,” Franck observes.

And men, she believes, are easier to draw than women.

“Women, you have to make them pretty,” she said with a laugh.

It can be challenging to put a sketch together, particularly if the victim’s or witness’ view of the assailant was limited, or some time has passed since the encounter. And sometimes, unfortunately, the victim or witness can be misleading, or outright lie. In a glass half full look toward that, Franck said the sketching still makes “good practice.”

“I can only go by what the victim or witness tells me. Obviously, I want to end up with a good product but I didn’t see the person, I’m just going by what they say. And [the sketch is] only a tool,” Franck said. “If it helps I’m happy, if it gets a response I’m happy. Obviously, I want the person to get caught.”

Franck credits Sheriff Michael Chapman with his support in allowing her to pursue the sketch artist certification in a three-year process through Stuart Parks Forensics, and also allowing her to be available in help other agencies. The sheriff’s office bore the full cost of her training, and also pays for her recertification every two years. This year, Franck is excited about spreading her wings a bit, training on how to do sketches based off human remains. She’s also begun to dabble in taking sketches based off grainy surveillance videos. This month, in her free time, she begins classes at the Delaplane Art Center, focusing on sketching the head and neck.

It’s particularly funny that Franck found herself as a criminal sketch artist, given her prior disdain for drawing faces as a young artist. But she’s learned to enjoy the challenge since she picked up the trade. She took over as the sheriff’s office’s sole sketch artist following the retirement of her predecessor a few years ago, and her reputation as one of the few remaining freehand sketch artists attracted the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, which reaches out to her with requests for sketches about five times a year.

For Franck, her preference has always been the back-to-basics style of pencil and paper.

“My opinion is when you see something on a computer image it’s more real. Your brain wants to see that exact person in the public,” she said. “Artwork and drawing, it gives your brain a little bit of freedom, a little bit broader range of what it might recognize.”

Plus, she said with a laugh, “I can erase whenever I want to. I’m sure I can do that on the computer I just don’t know how to.”

The duo agrees that practice makes perfect and, like with a foreign language, if you don’t use it often, it can go stale.

“Art is a perishable skill,” Franck said. “If you’re not very good at it and don’t practice it, you’re going to lose it.”

And, with combining both their passion for public service and art in their duties as sketch artists, Franck and Zodrow see their craft as their contribution to the community. Franck calls it the best thing to happen to her in her law enforcement career.

“This is my way of giving back,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling, and I get so excited when I get a call.”


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