What Is a Wanted Poster?

Renee Booker

The use of a wanted poster dates back to the days of the Old West in the United States when bank robbers were commonly the subject of a wanted poster. When a law enforcement agency wishes to apprehend an individual who is alleged to have committed a crime, one method they use is a wanted poster. Information contained on a wanted poster may include a photograph of the individual or composite drawing, the crime for which the person is wanted, and identifying characteristics such as height, weight, and scars or tattoos.

Wanted posters were often posted in post offices.
Wanted posters were often posted in post offices.

The idea behind the use of a wanted poster is to alert the public to the fact that law enforcement agencies are looking for the person in the poster. Traditionally, wanted posters have been posted in public locations, such as police stations, post offices, and government offices. Along with information regarding the suspect, a wanted poster usually includes contact information for the law enforcement agency that is looking for the suspect in the event a citizen has information. Although law enforcement agencies are by far the biggest users of wanted posters, other companies, such as armored car companies, have been known to use them as well when they have been the victim of a crime.

Armored car companies that have been a victim of crime may issue a wanted poster.
Armored car companies that have been a victim of crime may issue a wanted poster.

Information included on a wanted poster may be specific or general in nature, depending on how much information law enforcement agencies have on the suspect. In some cases, the poster will have more than one photograph if the suspect has been arrested before and booking photographs are available. In other cases, a snapshot from a video surveillance camera may be included or a composite sketch if no photograph is available.

Wanted posters can help with the apprehension of offenders.
Wanted posters can help with the apprehension of offenders.

If the name of the suspect is known, the name will be posted on the poster along with any known aliases. Detailed information regarding the height, weight, and hair and eye color will also be on the poster, if available. Identifying marks such as tattoos, scars, or physical imperfections may also be included.

Identifying marks such as tattoos may be listed on a wanted poster.
Identifying marks such as tattoos may be listed on a wanted poster.

Wanted posters have traditionally been printed on paper and placed in well trafficked public locations. In 2007, however, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began using electronic billboards to expand the use of wanted posters. The benefit to using electronic billboards is that a picture of a suspect may be broadcast virtually minutes after the commission of a crime, which markedly increases the chance that he or she will be apprehended.

Unique moles might be listed on a wanted poster.
Unique moles might be listed on a wanted poster.
Wanted posters typically contain the basics of offenses the person has committed.
Wanted posters typically contain the basics of offenses the person has committed.
Patrol officers should be kept abreast of wanted criminal descriptions so they know what to be on the lookout for.
Patrol officers should be kept abreast of wanted criminal descriptions so they know what to be on the lookout for.

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Discussion Comments

RocketLanch8

One time my family went to an amusement park out West, and it had a "make your own wanted poster" booth. We all did it as a joke, but the posters themselves looked pretty convincing. Someone actually asked me if one of the men in the poster was my great-grandfather or something.

Ruggercat68

I can't say I've seen paper "wanted posters" outside of the post office in years. I've seen a few billboards with a wanted fugitive's picture, but that's about it. I think the old wanted posters were generating too many false leads from the public. I saw a wanted poster photo one time that looked a lot like me. Fortunately, nobody ever called it into law enforcement agencies. That may be part of the problem, though. I looked enough like the suspect in the poster to be his twin brother, but nobody made the connection.

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