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Working Lives (2)

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Marc Pastor: Forensic Investigator

When I was younger I wanted to be a detective, a clown and a writer, in that order. Today I’m a member of the Criminal Science Unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra Police Force in Catalonia.

I spend a lot of time working on facial recognition, analyzing images from closed-circuit TV cameras in banks, office buildings and the street. Sometimes it’s difficult: there’s just a glimpse of a person or the light is poor, and it’s the only lead we have. My job is to compare the facial features I see in these images with the ones we keep in our database. If the images match, we’ve found our suspect.

I remember solving one case where the only closed-circuit image we had was of a man putting on a ski mask. We suspected it might be someone who was already on our database (and who in fact was back in prison). But we had nothing else. It seemed impossible, but I requested permission to go see the suspect. I asked him to do exactly what I’d seen on the tape: to put on a ski mask. He did, and when he repeated the action I noticed what we call an ‘identifying selection trait’; one of the fingers in the hand he used to cover his face was missing a phalange. He also had a scar near his thumb. It was only when I looked at the camera image again that I saw those traits I’d previously overlooked.

More than anything else I consider myself an illustrator. I specialize in police sketches, a task in which everything I like about my job comes together. To start with, I never sketch by computer. You see this a lot on television; it’s not at all effective. It just confuses the witness and tires them out. Nobody can distinguish much after being shown fifty different kinds of eyebrows or noses. When I need to do a police sketch, my only tools are pencil, paper and an eraser. I sit in front of the witness and begin drawing. Usually the person I’m with – and this is extremely important - is someone who has suffered a heavy emotional shock. And only someone going through that kind of trauma can become truly involved in the identification process.

I’ve sat in front of people who’ve been mugged or battered, rape victims and homicide witnesses for five years. The first thing I make clear to them is that I’m not a policeman, I’m Marc. Then I start sketching. My job is to make the victim or witness feel confident, because the human brain is like a room full of doors, and I need to find that door. I sketch, erase, and touch up the portrait according to their recollections. If the victim is short, I know that he or she will remember the attacker’s face as being rounder than it probably really is, because a short person’s perspective widens the jaw and face. When I draw, I correct this optical illusion. If the attack took place under a streetlight, I work out how prominent the aggressor’s forehead is likely to be based on the victim’s recollection of how the shadow fell over the eyes. As I finish off the portrait, the victim usually remembers details they thought they’d forgotten. That’s my job – to tease out information that the other person didn’t realize was there. Experience has taught me that it is very difficult for someone to recall the aggressor’s ears or nose. The eyes and mouth, on the other hand, they remember as they truly are: a weapon that is as threatening as a gun or a knife.

Because of television, people tend to be mistaken about what my job consists of. It’s a stressful job. In my first year, at the end of the day, I found it impossible to forget about work. Walking down the street, in my neighbourhood, on my way home, I couldn’t stop trying to identify suspects in the faces I came across. It was hard. I started getting migraines and couldn’t sleep. I was obsessed, scanning faces in the street for people who looked like one of my portraits. Finally, I asked to be transferred to Sant Feliu de Llobregat, a town that’s half an hour away by train. Now, when I take the train back home to Barcelona I no longer see suspects everywhere I go.

On the other hand, I didn’t suffer from any ill effects at all when I confronted my first corpse in 2004. I remember being called out one night to go to an apartment belonging to an upper-class family. The home help had been found dead - apparently murdered. I don’t remember feeling particularly nervous in the car, maybe I was excited. I’d already seen dead bodies and attended autopsies while studying criminology. To this day, my family is always surprised - I was squeamish as a kid. But that day, when we arrived at the apartment and found that woman lying on the floor, I just did my job: I took photographs, measurements and searched for clues.

I decided to study criminology because I felt that it would open the doors to those subjects that continue to interest me - sociology (a lot), and psychology. And law. But all the explanations these various disciplines offer us, all of them, just paper over the cracks. Yes, it’s true, psychology and sociology can explain why a particular person may have become a certain type of criminal: because of a violent father or an irresponsible mother. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of people who are mistreated as children don’t go on to become criminals. There is such a variety of factors – genetic, environmental – that come into play in people’s lives that considering all the explanations could take forever.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Read the rest of the Working Lives series here:

- A day driving a taxi in Rio
- Accountant for the French Communist Party
- The last fashion manufacturer of the Faubourg

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Comments (6)

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