The French novelist and art critic Marcel Proust once wrote that the purpose of art--its "function" and "justification"--is to permit one person access to the soul of another. What Proust meant was that, usually, the thoughts and inner spaces of other people are hidden, and the best way to penetrate these mysterious places is through works of art. In this way, art is a kind of communication link between two discontinuous worlds.

Of all the definitions of art (and there are thousands), the one formulated by Proust is crucial if one is to appreciate crime scene sketches created by police officers. Granted, the sketches have a practical function--they are made so that a follow-up investigator can piece together the fragments of a crime scene, and to record a room's composition for the press (photos are for the police; sketches are for the public). The officer's drawings are not made to please the eye of an audience or to make grandiose statements, but rather for the purpose of restoring order to a small corner of a chaotic world. In perusing these drawings, one begins to realize that each is so different from the other that they tend to tell us less about a real room, a real place, or a real crime victim than they do about the mindsets of the officers who created them.

Each police officer has his or her own style, and the details that preoccupy one officer--the angle of a body, the drape of a towel, a teddy bear tucked into a bed--may not preoccupy another. Indeed, these sketches offer us, in ways not possible in our regular interactions with the police (when they stop us because our tags have expired or when they arrive at our home to answer an emergency), access to their secret depths, into what we may call, for lack of a better term, "cop consciousness."

These sketches were collected from Seattle Police Department reports written over the past six months, and are of suicides that took place around the city (the police draw sketches for a variety of crimes, but to maintain a kind of theme, as art galleries do, I have decided to stick with suicides). It is important to note that the drawings were made by patrol officers and not "real artists," as is the case with homicides. Nevertheless, each officer received some training in the art of sketching at the police academy, and has well-thought-out opinions about the types of sketches they do.

A final note: These particular officers were required to sketch these rooms because they arrived at the crime scene first, and so automatically head the investigation and do all of the paperwork.

[Detailed drawings]

Originally from California, Sgt. Yamanaka of the North Precinct has been with the force for 13 years. He is a man of few words; he speaks cautiously, never giving away too much information. His sketches [see Fig. 1], however, are quite the opposite: they provide more detail than any crime scene sketches this side of homicide. Yamanaka considers himself a true artist. When asked (on the phone, just after roll call) about the motivation behind his works, he had this to say: "I do them because I'm an artist. I had training in art, and because I invariably have to go to the scene of a crime--because I'm the supervisor--I'll offer the primary officer my help and do the sketch. I'm better trained at it." Yamanaka's work shows great sensitivity, and expresses a profound affection for his subjects; indeed, in no other officer's drawings do we get such a sense of the actual person. It seems that for most police officers, the subject doesn't exist, isn't real--all that matters is the location of the body in the room and the placement of very large furniture. But in Yamanaka's sketches, the subject is described down to the most vivid detail (we even see what he or she was wearing: pants, a hat, a tie, shoes--in some instances, even the type of shoes). A brief survey of his amazing work shows that for Yamanaka, the world is not empty, but a place of abundance and complexity. So elaborate are his careful sketches that they seem surreal--which, indeed, is the very condition of being in the presence of too much, seeing too much, feeling too much. When I asked him how long it takes to create one of his sketches, he pondered and then said, "As long as it takes. It is not perfect, but I have to get in as much as I can--whether the room was dirty, whether the door was open or shut. I want to make sure that others can see what I see."

[Geometric figures]

Officer R. Zurcher, who comes from "back East" (all the detail he would provide), has been on the force for six years, and currently is stationed downtown, at the West Precinct. Judging from his tone of voice, he is an amiable police officer, the sort you can trust. But his easygoing manner belies the rigid, geometric terms of his crime scene sketches [see Fig. 2]. In his work, forms are far more important than detail (indeed, Yamanaka's sketches seem messy and overemotional when compared with Zurcher's Euclidean spaces). So stiff, so formal is Zurcher's work that it seems to have been created with the assistance of geometry tools: T-square, protractor, triangle, half-circle, quarter. He told me that his system for sketching a scene is to first make a rough draft on a notepad (which he always carries with him) at the crime scene, and then to return to his patrol car, where, under a small pool of light (and emotionally distanced from the actual crime), he creates his perfect shapes, his perfect world of polygons, angles, and oblique lines. Zurcher did, however, admit that his method "works well with some scenes, and not so well with others." "My sketches," he continues, "are a little templatish. They are like templates, if you get what I mean." (I didn't.) "But I figure if you know how to do it, if that is the skill you have, then you might as well use it."

[Stick men]

Officer D. Whalen is a native of Seattle and has been on the force for four years. She became a police officer because "it was something [she has] always wanted to do." In voice and manner, Whalen, who is stationed at the East Precinct, is alert and on top of things. She is not as cautious as Yamanaka, nor as exuberant as Zurcher. She seems, instead, to be the type who has no secrets, nothing to hide; a straightforward and unsuspicious sort. As you might guess, Whalen is not a particularly vivid sketch artist, and her drawings [Fig. 3] reflect her seemingly well-balanced personality (when Whalen sketches a room, one cannot tell whether it is dirty or clean--everything is neatly ordered). Whalen is part of a very popular tradition in the police department, which employs the primitive "stick man" figure to represent the human subject. These types of sketches abound in police reports, and apparently reveal the way most police officers see the victim, the criminal: as little stick things. This group of sketchers has yet to see "the face of man," and although the French structuralists (Foucalt, Barthes) declared over 30 years ago that man was dead, that his face was soon to be washed away by water like a face scribbled into the sand, this school of sketchers maintains that man is not yet born. Their stick men are like early, inchoate figures drawn on a cave wall in blood--they represent a world, a consciousness still under construction.

Whalen's sketch in Fig. 3, however, marks a major breakthrough: She has added two dot eyes to her stick figure's circle face. This addition represents a rupture in the "tradition" (look at the sketch by officer Smith [Fig. 4] for an example of a standard "stick man"), because usually the face is left blank. When I asked the even-tempered Whalen how long it takes to create her primal sketches, she said: "It doesn't take very long. Some people are better at drawing pictures than others and so spend more time at it. I usually scribble on a piece of paper and then go over it again back at the precinct, just to make sure it's more accurate." Do you enjoy sketching? "I don't mind doing them, but I don't look forward to doing them. I just do the best I can."

[Gingerbread men]

Another popular school of police department sketchers are those who represent their subjects as "gingerbread men". I will not go into the Freudian implications of this style, but can say that the officers who employ it are very hard to get a hold of. They don't like to be caught, to be asked questions, to be exposed. Officers Robinson [Fig. 5] and Grossman of the North Precinct and Officers Deese and Hell of the West Precinct eluded my attempts to talk with them by phone; indeed, only a true fox could have tricked them into an interview.

Of all the sketching styles, these are the least satisfying. They lack both the vitality of Yamanaka's work and the perfection of Zurcher's figures; the only point of interest these sketches hold is that the gingerbread men seem to come in wild shapes and sizes. Unlike stick men, gingerbread men are very flexible. Like circus contortionists, they can be stretched or stunted at whim. This flexibility, this freedom, has led to some unspeakable artistic disasters. For example, sometimes an officer will mangle a gingerbread man figure so badly that it looks like a stain (sperm, blood, ink, ketchup)--something sticky that won't come off the tiles in the kitchen or the rug in the living room.

Another problem with those who use the gingerbread man technique is that in their desperate efforts to restore order to a crime scene, they tend to compensate for a lack of detail by "overlabeling" a room's contents [see Fig. 6]. Indeed, the scenes they sketch are so vapid that one feels the officer never actually saw it, but instead heard (and drew from) a description transmitted over the radio in garbled police speak. The sad consequence is that the often-contorted gingerbread men seem to not be in a house of objects (indeed, personal belongings) but in a house of words.

* * *

Whether one appreciates this or that style, the bottom line is this: We can't help but find these sketches fascinating. They are, as Whalen points out, meant for the public, meant to tell us how a crime unfolds in a room. In each drawing we see the cop's inner eye at work--not an objective eye, but an eye informed by his or her personal desires ("Since I was boy, I always wanted to be a cop," says Zurcher) and the rigorous instruction they received at the academy. These are the works of men and women who are part of a rigid, militaristic bureaucracy which believes it sees, says, and indeed is, the truth.

Support The Stranger