Santa Clara officer solves crimes on the street and in sketch book

Every once in a while, when Santa Clara Police Officer Nathalie Zavala is not patrolling the streets, she can be found working on her other passion, drawing.

"I’ve always been able to draw. I can look at something and I can sketch it. That’s just the way it’s always been," said Zavala.

She has been certified in sketch art for policing for the last ten years. A lifelong public servant, she’s been a police officer for 14 years and served in the Army National Guard for 21 years.

"So this is a sketch I did with two victims, same suspect," she said.

When it comes to solving crime, her creativity comes in handy.

"To be able to get an accurate depiction of the person who committed the crime and the victim goes ‘that’s it, don’t do anything to it’ – you’re like that is the coolest feeling ever," Zavala said, smiling.

As part of her process, she conducts her own interview with the witness or victim, asking them to describe the scene and the suspect. 

"A sketch artist is listening and asking more detailed questions, so they can obtain every single little detail that’s going to make or break that case," said Lt. Mike Crescini, Public Information Officer with Santa Clara PD.

When asked how interviews are conducted, Zavala said, "You’re going to describe to me what they looked like, what’s their most distinctive feature on the face, the feature they remember the most, a lot of times it’s the nose or the mouth."

"You slowly start on the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and then you do the shading, and it turns into something like that," she continued.

Zavala said depending on the crime, she has to be prepared for an emotional response from victims, recalling a sensitive moment when a sexual assault victim reacted to seeing her sketch.

"I finished a drawing and when I showed it to her to tell me what changes, she looked at it and her face was just flushed, she started to cry and didn’t want to look at it anymore, she was just like nope – that’s him," Zavala remembered.

"That component of being able to actually have a conversation with someone face to face and kind of see what their emotion is as they’re describing something helps her to take her time and create that sketch," said Crescini.

Officer Zavala supports neighboring agencies who don’t have their own sketch artist. Her training taught her how to create a sketch with limited information, such as a side profile from a surveillance photo.

"Even if it’s very blurry, there are some things that are prominent… usually you can squint and say, ‘Oh they’re eyebrows are like this,’ or, ‘Their nose are wide,’ and I’m going to focus on that," said Zavala.

One of the cases she helped close was a gang-related armed robbery at the All Star Burger in Newark. Newark police said back in 2017, two of the four suspects jumped out of their vehicle and robbed the victims at gunpoint, stealing their car keys and a cell phone. Security footage from the restaurant was so grainy, Newark investigators called on Officer Zavala to help them create a composite.

"They had a lot of information, but they couldn’t pin it to a certain individual and with the victim’s interview and the sketch – he was like we were looking at this group and that’s one of the guys," she said.

Her sketch helped name Isaiah Castillo as a suspect. Newark Police Department Sgt. Matt Warren, a detective in the case, said, "Officer Zavala did an outstanding job helping us close that case and bring it to court."

She also helped the coroner’s office identify a homeless man found dead in Santa Clara County.

"They couldn’t find him with fingerprints or dental records, so this was like their last resort. They were like, ‘We need to release this to the public to see if anyone will recognize him,’" Zavala said.

Officials say sketch artists can help create a composite of someone more precisely than any artificial intelligence or digital program can.

"You can age a person or make them younger, based on whatever features they have, and it’ll help – you could do a missing person, and maybe they were 10 years old or 15 years old – we need a sketch where they’re 25 or 30," Zavala said.

"The one thing I tell my sons, they’re 16 and 18, so my biggest thing for them is find a job or career – I don’t care what it is, but as long as you love it, it’s not a job. I love police work. I love drawing," she said. 

Zavala says she loves what she does, and she plans to continue her education in sketching, using her creative talents to solve real practical problems.