LONDON // Paul Hyland almost never forgets a face. He’s a “super recogniser”, and that’s giving an unusual kind of help to his employer: Scotland Yard.
Several years ago, for example, London police were on the lookout for a burglar wanted for nine robberies. About a month after seeing the burglar’s picture, Mr Hyland and two colleagues were stuck in traffic.
“I looked up and noticed this guy coming out of a university and knew it was him,” Mr Hyland said, adding that neither of his colleagues recognised the burglar. Hyland arrested the suspect, who confessed after questioning.
“If I’ve met someone before and see them again, I’ll usually know where I know them from, even if I can’t remember their name.”
How does Mr Hyland do it? Nobody knows. But since 2011, about 200 London policemen have been recruited to an elite squad of super recognisers. Officials say they have tripled the number of criminal suspects identified from surveillance photos or on the street each week, and even helped prevent some crimes like muggings, drug deals and assaults.
“When we have an image of an unidentified criminal, I know exactly who to ask instead of sending it out to everyone and getting a bunch of false leads,” said Mick Neville, detective chief inspector at Scotland Yard. Inspector Neville started the super recogniser unit after realising the police had no system for identifying criminals based on images, unlike those for DNA and fingerprints.
The unit proved especially valuable after riots hit London in the summer of 2011. After the violence, Scotland Yard combed through hundreds of hours of surveillance video. So far, there have been nearly 5,000 arrests; around 4,000 of those were based on police identifications of suspects from video images. The super recognisers were responsible for nearly 30 per cent of the identifications, including one officer who identified almost 300 people. A facial recognition software programme made only one successful identification, according to Inspector Neville.
The officers aren’t infallible, said Inspectpr Neville, and their identification is only the start of a case, after which police start looking for other evidence.
Legal authorities warned it could be problematic to use super recognisers as expert witnesses in court, such as in situations where they identify criminals based on an imperfect image.
“Unless we subject them to [rigorous testing], then we are just taking their word on trust and we have no reason to do this,” said Mike Redmayne, a law professor at the London School of Economics. “Perhaps they can do what they say, but we don’t have the evidence yet,” he said. “If it was up to me, I would not (allow) it in court.”
Charles Farrier, a spokesman for the UK privacy group, No CCTV, called the police’s use of super recognisers “the latest gimmick” being used to promote the widespread use of surveillance cameras. According to the group, Britain has the most surveillance cameras per person in the world.
“It is a slippery slope when we want to start to justify the widespread use of blanket surveillance ‘just in case’ a policeman spots someone,” he said. “The use of (super recognisers) will lead to cases of mistaken identity but more than that, it forms part of a ubiquitous surveillance culture that spreads fear and distrust,” he said.
Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organisation, said they weren’t aware of any police forces worldwide using super recognisers or similar techniques to the London Metropolitan Police.
The abilities of some London super recognisers impressed a sceptical psychologist, who now plans to study them further.
“When I was told that the police have these amazing people who recognise everyone, I was a bit dubious,” said Josh Davis of the University of Greenwich in England. At Scotland Yard’s request, Mr Davis ran several tests on 18 of the best-performing super recogniser cops and found many scored off the charts when compared to average people. He plans to examine all 200 super recognisers on the London police and to develop a test for new recruits to see who might have special facial recognition abilities.
While most people can learn to remember faces better, scientists say, it is unlikely they could match the powers of a super recogniser.
“I think some of this is hard-wired,” said Ashok Jansari, a psychologist at the University of East London.
It’s like the natural advantage that sprinting champion Usain Bolt holds. “Bolt has a very particular physical make-up that makes him the fastest runner in the world,” he said. “You could teach other people to use the same techniques he’s using, but they will never be as fast.”
Mr Hyland’s Olympic-class memory for faces is an aberration in his own life.
“I’m quite forgetful with basic things,” the 30-year-old said. “I’ll walk into a room and forget what I was coming in for, or I’ll drive to the shops and get a load of stuff except for what I was supposed to get ... Like everyone else, I’m not so good with a shopping list.”
* Associated Press