The use of such human talents in fighting crime is unique to London, according to Mick Neville, the detective chief inspector who heads the unit. Asked what makes a good Super Recognizer, Neville pointed out that there is a multitude of factors. "You don’t just look at the face to recognize (a suspect). It’s all these several factors that come into play. And it’s very hard scientifically to say which is the hardest — but the human mind puts together several things," he said.
“Super Recognizers seem to be able to turn in their head a face better than the rest of us," said Josh Davis, a researcher at the University of Greenwich in London who has developed an online test for Super Recognizers. Less than 1 percent of the population would qualify for a position, he said.
The unit was founded during riots in London in 2011 and consisted mainly of ordinary police officers who noticed that they had special face recognition skills. That year, huge crowds rioted in London boroughs, as well as other cities in the country. Scotland Yard suddenly had to identify thousands of suspects within a short period of time — and its computers seemed to be of little help.
Automated software is good at identifying faces only if photographs of a person have been taken from the same angle and under similar lightning situations, for instance during passport controls at airports. However, only one out of about 4,000 suspects from the riots was identified using computer software, according to Scotland Yard. Human Super Recognizers managed to find the rest.
In one of the most striking cases, Scotland Yard's masterminds were capable of identifying a burglar who was later sentenced to six years in jail despite the fact that surveillance cameras recorded only his covered face. Scotland Yard says that one of its Super Recognizers later recognized the suspect's eyes on other recordings — leading to his arrest.
Investigators in the United Kingdom can rely on vast amounts of surveillance footage: The country has more cameras than any other nation in Europe.
However, interest in the special unit has recently risen abroad. After dozens of men allegedly assaulted women at the main train station in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve, German investigators faced a similar problem as Scotland Yard did in 2011. The sheer number of suspects and victims made it hard for officers to analyze the data and video footage, mainly shot with mobile phones. Scotland Yard's Super Recognizers flew to Cologne to assist their German colleagues.
Among the officers was Andrew Eyles. "I might only deal with (someone) once. But it would be like looking at a family member or friend," Eyles said.
"Then I remember that I stopped him on this street, or I searched for him on this street. So then, I just look through old systems and find his name," he said.
Such skills may have helped to find and arrest dozens of criminals, but they can also make for awkward situations in everyday life — when he accidentally greets people by name and mentions their date of birth — although they have absolutely no idea why he knows them. "Then they look flabbergasted," he said.
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