Steinberg started at the Miami-Dade Police Department in 1998. Before she started, an officer named Charlie Holt was doing composites in his spare time. Steinberg worked as an unpaid volunteer for the first year, and was hired as the department’s first full-time forensic artist, and remains the only one. This seems somewhat surprising, considering that Miami-Dade is a giant metropolis with no small amount of activity that is considered criminal.
It’s possible this is because the forensic arts, historically speaking, are relatively new: The field came about with the standardization of policing in the 19th century, with the earliest, most famous example being a composite of Jack the Ripper, crudely scrawled. The field then started becoming more established in the 20th century, as the professionalization of policing—and the obsession with eradicating crime and unearthing villainous elements in society—started to grow. As the police apparatus grew in the mid-20th century, so too did the tools at its disposal.
Forensic arts reached a cultural apex with the much-ridiculed composite of the Unabomber. Today, the popular imagination conjures this art form in the context of crime genres: somebody drawing a suspect in police procedural dramas, true crime docs and the like.
And in fact, it was through fiction that Steinberg first got interested in forensic arts. Born and raised on Miami Beach, Steinberg graduated from RISD and found herself back in Miami working in advertising. She started devouring true crime novels, to the point that her brother started making fun of her: “He would tease me by saying that the FBI had flagged me because of my reading habits and that the next time there was a serial killer in Miami-Dade County, there would be a loud banging on my front door.”
Steinberg is able to pinpoint the moment that her interest was piqued: “In reading one of these books, it was a book about a long-distance trucker who murdered women. They had found skeletal remains of a teenaged girl in an abandoned barn. In the book the author describes the law enforcement agency was trying to find a way to put a face on the skeletal remains to identify the young victim. They go to someone in the department who works for graphic services and she ended up putting a face on the skull with the help of anthropologists and other people. I remember reading the book and thinking I could do that.”
Her work as an artist started long before her interest in serial murder and forensics. “When I was about two or two-and-a-half,” Steinberg says, “I did a drawing of a fish, and [my mom] was surprised because they were anatomically correct. They had dorsal fins, pectoral fins, and gills, everything that a fish should have. She didn’t know where it came from. She was surprised by the accuracy of my representation.”