Forensic Imaging Workshop

Law enforcement officials spent a week at USF learning new imaging techniques to track missing children, help solve cold cases and hunt criminals.


                                                                                                                                     Video: Katy Hennig | USF News

Melissa Wolfe

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (March 14, 2013) – Nearly two dozen law enforcement professionals from around the world gathered at the University of South Florida this week for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) annual forensic imaging workshop.


The forensic imaging workshop, hosted at USF since 2007, uses Adobe Photoshop to teach law enforcement and graduate students different methods of facial imaging, including facial reconstructions, age progressions, photo enhancement, and other imaging techniques to aid law enforcement.


NCMEC often works internationally, and the workshop reflected that diversity with participants from Austria, Thailand, England and Canada peppered among U.S. law enforcement officials from Virginia to California.


“We work with all international law enforcement agencies,” said Joe Mullins, one of the two forensic imaging artists from NCMEC, leading the class. “Everybody from this pool of international faces will take what they learned here and go back and use it in their own department.”


Over five days, Mullins taught a number of imaging manipulation techniques, focusing mainly on photo enhancement and age progression.


One way law enforcement utilizes photo enhancement techniques is to make morgue photos of John and Jane Doe’s media ready.


“A lot of time when bodies are found there is trauma to the face or something you wouldn’t want to show on the 5 o’clock news,” said Mullins. “You want to remove the trauma from the images using the same imaging techniques and bring that person back to life.”


Age progressions, or age approximations, are used by NCMEC to update the images of long-term missing children to how they may appear today. Cases must be at least two years old before being eligible for an age progression. Missing children under 18 are age progressed every two years due to the rate of growth and change that occurs during childhood and adolescence. Once a missing child turns 18, they receive age progressions every five years.


“If you’re taking someone 10 years down the road,” said Mullins, “you have to make sure you’ve maintained all the unique facial characteristics of that individual into the age progressed image without altering it too much. Like moles or scars, if you erase that you’ve taken away some identifiers that might have sparked recognition.”


The process of age progression is a mix of art and science. Forensic imaging artists use knowledge of heredity, paired with pictures of the missing child and parent, to come up with a plausible progression.


 “It’s somewhat subjective,” said Mullins. “We’re not going to come up with a portrait of what these children look like. The best way to explain how it works is: almost is good enough for an age progression. Someone just has to see that age progressed image and sparks some recognition.”


The “almost is good enough” philosophy, while sometimes a hit or miss strategy, can work wonders. Since NCMEC started using age progressions in 1990, more than 1,000 children have been recovered in cases using age progression.


“There are a number of different ways in which the methods taught here are used,” said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic and biological anthropologist at USF. “The way which we used them in our lab are facial approximations. When there is an unidentified person who needs an identity, you want to start with, what did they look like in hopes that somebody will recognize them.


“What you’re looking for is that basic structure, boney structure and architecture of the face that ultimately informs as to what your face looks like and hopefully someone will recognize it. It’s never an exact likeness. It’s never an absolute replica or photograph. It’s always an approximation.”


Kimmerle’s techniques were used in a cold case file dating back 42 years that her students revisited using updated technologies. The young woman, nicknamed Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee, was found floating in Lake Panasoffkee in Sumpter County, Fla. in February 1971.


“It looked like she might have been out there for a few months,” said Liotta Dowdy, an anthropology graduate student attending the workshop. “At that time, the technology wasn’t that great so we only have a few photographs from her decomposed body and there were no autopsy photos.”


Students compiled an extensive biological profile on the young woman from enamel and bone samples, and isotope studies. Using the biological profile, they came up with a facial approximation and composite of what she may have looked like.


“We use skeletal biology and the morphology, the shape of the face, what is unique based on your age, on whether you are male or female, what you’ve done in your life, whether there is trauma or a healed fracture, anything that might ultimately affect how you look,” explained Kimmerle. “We try to take all that into consideration when creating the best likeness that you can.”


Originally thought to be American Indian, Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee’s composite has been updated to reflect the Greek ancestry found in her isotopes.


“Facial approximation becomes a vehicle to get this case back in the media,” said Kimmerle. “It may have been 10, 20, 25 years since this particular person’s story has been out there. The imaging with the face, with the clothing, reanalysis coming up with all the news ways science can add to the case kind of puts together this new story. It’s a way to open up that dialogue again.”


Each participant came to the workshop with specific goals in mind. For Col. Helmut Reinmueller, head of Austria’s Fugitive Active Search Team, age progression may hold the key to catching Tibor Foco, one of Austria’s most wanted criminals.


“Last year, in Germany I met one of the members of the NCMEC and did a basic course on imaging in Germany with the federal police,” said Reinmueller. “The aim was this criminal, Tibor Foco. He’s on the run since the 70’s. His last police picture is from 1997. I inked the picture and plotted to age 50. This is the reason we are interested in aging. It is the reason for me, for my unit.”


With a population of barely 8.5 million, Austria has only five long-term missing children under the age of 20. Austria plans to further reduce that number through the use of age progression.


“In the future, we want to do the same way as the Americans,” said Reinmueller, “and age the young people every two years.”


Austria is not the only country working to improve its missing children database. In the six years since USF began hosting the workshop, there has been a marked increase in international participation, partially resulting from new special task forces or facial imaging units being formed in other countries. Across the globe, photo enhancement and age progression are being recognized and utilized as effective resources for law enforcement.


NCMEC, started in 1984 under President Reagan, is a nationally coordinated organization aimed at finding and protecting the missing and exploited children of America. They aid in disseminating information on missing children, organizing searches for critically missing children, training law enforcement and health professionals, tracking sexual offenders, and managing a number of tip hotlines to report suspected abuse.