Su­per Recog­nis­ers

Th­ese Crime Fight­ers Never For­get a Face

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Cover - BY TIM HULSE

AUSTIN CA­BALLERO HAD BEEN GET­TING AWAY WITH IT for years. A shoplifter who tar­geted small, high-end shops in Lon­don’s wealth­ier dis­tricts, he had helped him­self to more than £100,000 worth of jew­ellery and de­signer cloth­ing over an ex­tended pe­riod.

“He was good,” says De­tec­tive Sergeant Eliot Por­ritt of the UK cap­i­tal’s Metropoli­tan Po­lice. “I hate us­ing that word for him, but he was well dressed and calm. He would go in and en­gage the staff in con­ver­sa­tion, and as soon as their backs were turned, he’d steal stuff.

“Some­times it wasn’t un­til two or three days later that they’d re­alise some­thing was miss­ing from the dis­play. Then they’d look on CCTV and call the po­lice. But he’d be long gone by then, so he al­ways had the ad­van­tage.”

Ca­ballero would prob­a­bly still be get­ting away with it were it not for in­di­vid­u­als such as Por­ritt, who is one of a team of so-called ‘su­per-recog­nis­ers’ who have been op­er­at­ing at Metropoli­tan Po­lice head­quar­ters at New Scot­land Yard since May 2015 and who last year lent their help to the po­lice in Cologne, Ger­many.

They sound like char­ac­ters from a Marvel comic and in­deed their tal­ents are close to su­per­hu­man, be­cause they have an un­canny abil­ity to re­mem­ber and recog­nise faces – even faces that are only par­tially re­vealed or highly pix­e­lated.

So when a mem­ber of the unit saw a pic­ture of the then un­known Ca­ballero on the Met’s com­puter data­base of CCTV images of known sus­pects in the sum­mer of 2016, he de­cided to check and see if he had been caught on cam­era be­fore. It’s a match­ing process the unit calls ‘face snap­ping’, af­ter the game of snap, in which play­ers look for iden­ti­cal cards.

Af­ter a week­end of search­ing, he’d snapped ten other images on the data­base. Even­tu­ally, af­ter look­ing at tens of thou­sands of images, he would end up with around 40 iden­ti­fi­ca­tions. It was clear that Ca­ballero was a se­ri­ous re­peat of­fender.

A me­dia ap­peal was launched for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and in due course Ca­ballero was found and later con­victed of 40 of­fences of theft and one of racially ag­gra­vated as­sault. He is cur­rently serv­ing three years and three months in prison.

“Some of th­ese pic­tures of Ca­ballero went back to 2012,” says Por­ritt, an af­fa­ble char­ac­ter with a ready smile, who is fiercely proud of the suc­cesses of the unit. “He was prob­a­bly think­ing, ‘I’ve com­mit­ted all th­ese of­fences and no-one’s ever come to see me, so I’ve got away with it.’ But that’s all changed. We’re iden­ti­fy­ing all th­ese pro­lific of­fend­ers who’ve gone un­der the radar for years be­cause no-one’s ever linked up CCTV images of them.”

THE BE­GIN­NINGS OF THE SU­PER-recog­niser unit go back to the se­ri­ous civil dis­tur­bances in Lon­don dur­ing the sum­mer of 2011. It be­came clear then that the Met had no sys­tem­atic way of deal­ing with large num­bers of CCTV images. So the first step was the cre­ation of a com­put­erised data­base of images that could be searched by var­i­ous cri­te­ria such as eth­nic ap­pear­ance, cloth­ing and hair­style. When the data­base was put into use, it be­came clear that cer­tain of­fi­cers had an un­canny abil­ity for recog­nis­ing faces.

“I first started hear­ing about su­per-recog­nis­ers in 2011,” says Act­ing Po­lice Sergeant Paul Smith, who de­vel­oped and now man­ages the sev­en­strong unit, plus a net­work of around

140 other su­per- recog­nis­ers, both of­fi­cers and civil­ian staff. “When we started us­ing the data­base, it be­came clear that cer­tain of­fi­cers, such as Eliot, were giv­ing re­peat iden­ti­fi­ca­tions – not just one, but four, five, six, and on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.”

Por­ritt had no idea he had a spe­cial tal­ent un­til Smith con­tacted him to tell him he was on his su­per-recog­niser list. Now 37, he joined the po­lice force in 2008. Grow­ing up in the leafy Lon­don sub­urb of Bel­size Park, he’d dreamed of work­ing in the pub­lic ser­vices and mak­ing the world a bet­ter place, and it was af­ter a job as a civil­ian as­sist­ing a child-abuse in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he re­alised the po­lice force was where he wanted to be.

“I’ve al­ways been good with names and faces but I was never aware when I was a kid of peo­ple go­ing, ‘Oh my god, how did you re­mem­ber that?’” he says, laugh­ing.

“It’s strange, it’s only through work­ing at the su­per-recog­niser unit that I re­alise peo­ple don’t see other peo­ple the way I do. In the past I’d be look­ing at two pic­tures and go, ‘That’s the same per­son,’ and some­one else would say, ‘Are you sure?’ And I’d go, ‘Are you blind?!’

“We su­per-recog­nis­ers can re­mem­ber faces we’ve seen years ago. The av­er­age per­son can mem­o­rise 20 to 50 per cent of faces but aca­demics tell us we can mem­o­rise 90 per cent.”

Be­tween one and two per cent of the pop­u­la­tion has this spe­cial skill, and sci­en­tists are baf­fled as to why. How­ever, it can be sci­en­tif­i­cally tested, and all the mem­bers of the ­su­per-recog­niser unit have been proven to share the abil­ity. And it’s pay­ing div­i­dends.

“Since the unit started in May 2015, we’ve made more than 1800 iden­ti­fi­ca­tions,” says Por­ritt. “And that’s led to more than 900 com­pleted cases.”

POR­RITT AND COL­LEAGUES reg­u­larly ­at­tend large-scale events, where they can help to iden­tify known of­fend­ers. “A cou­ple of the guys were at the ­Not­ting Hill Car­ni­val in Lon­don look­ing at a live feed of TV images and feed­ing in­for­ma­tion back,” he says. “They could tell there were two gangs next to one an­other, so they were able to give a warn­ing and avert a se­ri­ous dis­tur­bance.”

Ten su­per- recog­nis­ers were also

“The av­er­age per­son can mem­o­rise 20 to 50 per cent of faces, but su­per-recog­nis­ers can mem­o­rise 90 per cent”

­as­signed to the high-pro­file case of ­Alice Gross, a teenager who went miss­ing in west Lon­don in Au­gust 2014 and was later found to have been mur­dered. Their work was cru­cial in find­ing her body, which had been con­cealed by her killer un­der logs in a river.

“The key break­through was when we found a tiny flicker of a head lamp that had been missed by all the of­fi­cers ini­tially view­ing the CCTV images in the area,” re­mem­bers Por­ritt. “It was a clue that the main sus­pect had re­turned to fur­ther con­ceal the body. The area had al­ready been searched, but as a re­sult of our in­for­ma­tion there was an­other search and she was found. From there we built a case.” AT THE BE­GIN­NING OF 2016, Por­ritt and a col­league went to Cologne to help po­lice in that city in­ves­ti­gate a huge num­ber of sex­ual as­saults and thefts mainly thought to have been car­ried out by North ­African refugees dur­ing the city’s New Year’s Eve cel­e­bra­tions. It was the first time the unit had helped a for­eign force.

“There were 1546 crimes that night, in­clud­ing 532 sex­ual as­saults,” says De­tec­tive Su­per­in­ten­dent Thomas Schulte, the Ger­man po­lice of­fi­cer lead­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “It was night time, so the CCTV qual­ity was very bad. Scot­land Yard called us to of­fer their help. I’d heard about su­per-recog­nis­ers be­fore, so I was in­ter­ested.”

“We were there for two weeks,” says

Por­ritt. “They’d al­ready iden­ti­fied three of­fi­cers who’d made a lot of iden­ti­fi­ca­tions and were clearly su­per-recog­nis­ers, so we gave them some train­ing. When we got there, they had pic­tures of ten or 20 peo­ple on the wall. When we left, the wall was full of sus­pects.”

“I was sur­prised by how suc­cess­ful they were,” ad­mits Schulte, who says they are now think­ing of in­tro­duc­ing su­per-recog­niser units in Ger­many. “We al­ways think about tech­ni­cal solutions, but this shows that the hu­man mind is kind of in­ter­est­ing.”

It’s a good point. The US mil­i­tary re­cently pur­chased 500 pairs of X6 ‘spy glasses’ that en­able a user to match a face in real time to one on a com­puter data­base. While fa­cial- recog­ni­tion soft­ware has its uses and has be­come preva­lent in other ar­eas, the su­per-recog­nis­ers demon­strate that, for now, the hu­man brain has its ad­van­tages.

“Al­most ev­ery im­age that we’ve got a con­vic­tion out of would never be picked up by fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware,” says Por­ritt. “That re­lies on per­fect con­di­tions, so I don’t think it will be good enough for years. CCTV cam­eras are usu­ally po­si­tioned ­look­ing down­wards. An­gles, light­ing, pix­e­la­tion, fa­cial ex­pres­sions: all th­ese change things, and that’s why you ­al­ways need that hu­man el­e­ment.”

And un­like a ma­chine, su­per-recog­nis­ers never stop work­ing, and find them­selves spot­ting wanted crim­i­nals – not to men­tion celebri­ties – in off-duty mo­ments.

“We’re al­ways on the look-out,” says Por­ritt, who on more than one oc­ca­sion has also been grate­ful for the fact that so few peo­ple share his abil­ity – as when he found him­self late at night wait­ing for a bus next to some­one he had once ar­rested. “Luck­ily, he didn’t recog­nise me,” he laughs.

Are you a su­per-recog­niser? Try the ‘Short Teaser Test’ at http://su­per­recog­nis­

Por­ritt went to Cologne last year to help po­lice in­ves­ti­gate a huge num­ber of sex­ual as­saults and thefts on New Year’s Eve

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.