Name game The “su­per recog­nis­ers” who can pick a stranger out of a crowd

We all have an in­nate abil­ity to pick a face out of a crowd. But some can mem­o­rise thou­sands of peo­ple – of­ten seen only fleet­ingly on CCTV. Alex Moshakis meets the ‘su­per recog­nis­ers’, and asks if they can re­ally be more ac­cu­rate than the po­lice force’s

The Observer Magazine - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tion AN­THONY GERACE

Ear­lier this year, a softly spo­ken com­mu­nity-sup­port of­fi­cer named Andy Pope re­ceived the Chief Con­sta­ble’s Award, an hon­our be­stowed on po­lice force em­ploy­ees who’ve shown ex­tra­or­di­nary brav­ery, or re­mark­able ded­i­ca­tion, or both. In Pope’s case, the award re­lated to a pe­cu­liar knack. Be­tween 2012 and 2017, he iden­ti­fied 1,000 crim­i­nal sus­pects, some­times by con­nect­ing im­ages taken from CCTV footage to mug shots avail­able on the po­lice database, which he does nearly ev­ery morn­ing, but more of­ten while rid­ing the West Mid­lands train, bus and tram net­work, which falls un­der his beat. (He calls at least one Birm­ing­ham bus route “my baby”.) By any mea­sure­ment, Pope’s achieve­ment was stag­ger­ing. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, most of his col­leagues had strug­gled to make even a 10th of his tally, and some had made no iden­ti­fi­ca­tions at all. When I men­tioned Pope’s stats to one chief su­per­in­ten­dent, he was shocked. “Un­be­liev­able,” he said. “In 20 years I’ve only iden­ti­fied about 30 peo­ple.”

Pope has recog­nised sus­pects wanted for all man­ner of se­ri­ous crimes, from as­sault and ex­po­sure to theft. And, on the strength of his iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, many of those per­pe­tra­tors have been ar­rested, con­victed and sent to prison.

But at the awards cer­e­mony Pope felt out of place, as though he didn’t de­serve the ac­co­lade. “You’re see­ing of­fi­cers get­ting awards for var­i­ous things,” he says. “In­ci­dents that could have been very, very hairy at the time. And I’m think­ing: ‘Do I re­ally be­long in this room?’ I just pick peo­ple out on CCTV and write up a quick state­ment.”

He was un­sure whether or not he should be cel­e­brated for the abil­ity to re­call a face, a skill he de­scribes as “just some­thing I’m able to do”, an un­con­scious act as nor­mal

to him as blink­ing. How­ever, Pope is of­ten re­minded – by his su­pe­ri­ors, and by sci­en­tists in­ter­ested in scan­ning and mon­i­tor­ing his brain – that very few peo­ple are able to do what he does. But he bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion that he’s re­mark­able.

“I don’t think I’m ex­tra­or­di­nary or any­thing like that,” he says. “I’m just lucky to be in a job where I’m able to use it.”

Pope is talk­ing to me in Birm­ing­ham, near to his divi­sion’s of­fice, the en­tire floor of a po­lice build­ing in the city cen­tre. He’s on pa­trol, in uni­form, re­liv­ing the cer­e­mony while study­ing passers-by with a se­ries of left-right scans. One man in a leather jacket. An­other in over­alls. No­body he’s seen be­fore. He does this most days, left-right, left­right, on duty and off. “My wife has to say, ‘Andy, you’re not at work now.’”

Pope, 40, is a “su­per recog­niser”, a term coined in a 2009 pa­per by Richard Rus­sell, now an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Get­tys­burg Col­lege, to de­scribe “peo­ple with ex­tra­or­di­nary face-recog­ni­tion abil­ity”. By some cog­ni­tive quirk, Pope is able to mem­o­rise thou­sands of faces, of­ten hav­ing glimpsed each only once. It’s an un­con­scious act; his mind is an enor­mous and au­to­matic im­age li­brary. Some faces he files for years. In one case, while pa­trolling a West Mid­lands high street, Pope recog­nised a sus­pect two years af­ter he’d first seen his pic­ture. The per­pe­tra­tor, later con­victed for ex­po­sure, thought he’d evaded cap­ture. He reg­u­larly re­calls faces he’s seen six or 12 months ear­lier, when much of the hope of find­ing a sus­pect has ebbed away, and of­fi­cers are re­ly­ing on the in­di­vid­ual to re-of­fend in or­der to make an ar­rest.

Gareth Mor­ris, who was once Pope’s sergeant and is now a chief su­per­in­ten­dent with the Glouces­ter­shire po­lice, told me: “With­out Andy’s in­ter­ven­tion, ab­so­lutely, some of th­ese cases would have gone un­solved.”

‘Pope is able to mem­o­rise thou­sands of faces hav­ing seen each only once’

For much of his life Pope had no grasp of his ta­lent. Nei­ther his dad, an ar­chi­tec­tural tech­ni­cian, nor his mum, a sec­re­tary, dis­played the same abil­ity. As a child, Pope re­mem­bers watch­ing tele­vi­sion and be­ing able to re­call the names of ob­scure ac­tors he’d once no­ticed in the back­ground of other pro­grammes – a handy so­cial skill, but not one to build a ca­reer on. When he fin­ished school he started work­ing in a shop, then at the same ar­chi­tec­ture firm his dad worked for, as the of­fice man­ager. He was good at re­mem­ber­ing the faces of peo­ple he met, but he “just thought ev­ery­one else could do it, too”.

Pope joined the po­lice in 2005 and re­mained close to anony­mous in the force un­til 2011, when he met Mor­ris. “He brought a photo to me,” Mor­ris re­calls, “and told me he wanted to grab an of­fi­cer and find the guy in the pho­to­graph and ar­rest him.” The im­age, which Pope had no­ticed on a po­lice bul­letin, fea­tured a man wanted for as­sault, but it was grainy and shot from ‹

‹ an awk­ward an­gle. Mor­ris was scep­ti­cal – “I said to him, ‘I’d strug­gle to recog­nise my own mother in this pho­to­graph’” – and he de­murred, but Pope was con­fi­dent, and he turned out to be cor­rect. As soon as the sus­pect was ar­rested, he broke down. “He ad­mit­ted to it right there and then.”

Mor­ris was stunned. When Pope cor­rectly iden­ti­fied an­other sus­pect, and an­other one af­ter that, and showed ab­so­lutely no signs of slow­ing down, they re­alised the abil­ity was re­mark­able. From then on, when Mor­ris spoke to con­tacts in other po­lice di­vi­sions, he would in­form them of Pope’s skill, and of­fer out his ser­vices.

But take-up was lim­ited. Some­times Mor­ris wor­ried that Pope’s abil­ity was be­ing wasted. Here was an in­di­vid­ual some­how able to iden­tify hun­dreds of wanted sus­pects, be­ing un­derused. “We all con­sid­ered it,” Mor­ris says. “Is there an­other ap­pli­ca­tion?”

Su­per recog­nis­ers like Pope have been in the news lately. In Septem­ber, two su­per recog­nis­ers em­ployed by the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Force iden­ti­fied the Rus­sian na­tion­als later ac­cused of the Sal­is­bury Novi­chok poi­son­ings, hav­ing sifted through hours of CCTV footage. In Au­gust, the Met an­nounced it would aban­don the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware at this year’s Not­ting Hill Car­ni­val (in pre­vi­ous years the tech­nol­ogy had con­fused men with women – an em­bar­rass­ing blun­der), but that it would in­stead de­ploy su­per recog­nis­ers, who it con­sid­ered bet­ter able to ac­cu­rately spot the faces of trou­ble­mak­ers in dense crowds.

Su­per recog­ni­tion isn’t a new phe­nom­e­non. Some of us have been bet­ter than oth­ers at re­call­ing faces for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber. But the abil­ity has only re­cently been ac­knowl­edged as a pro­fes­sional in­ves­tiga­tive skill, and it has been em­braced by the po­lice hes­i­tantly. That has ex­as­per­ated su­per-recog­ni­tion ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing Josh Davis, a psy­chol­ogy lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Greenwich, and Mick Neville, a one-time mil­i­tary man and for­mer de­tec­tive chief in­spec­tor at Scot­land Yard, who set up the UK’s first ded­i­cated su­per recog­niser po­lice unit in 2013.

Neville is from Lan­cashire, and he speaks, at least over the phone, in a gruff huff. For his unit he se­lected six of­fi­cers, a mixed bunch, who’d scored highly on fa­cial recog­ni­tion tests. (Su­per recog­nis­ers earn their ti­tle for ac­ing ex­ams like the Cam­bridge Face Mem­ory Test, at which Pope is a mas­ter.) Neville’s team helped for­malise su­per recog­ni­tion within po­lice in­ves­tiga­tive pro­cesses. In 2016, it made more than 2,500 pri­mary iden­ti­fi­ca­tions – de­tec­tions that have re­sulted in “a charge, cau­tion, or other au­tho­rised clear-up”, in po­lice par­lance – for crimes in­clud­ing first-de­gree mur­der. Foren­sic de­part­ments – DNA and fin­ger­print anal­y­sis di­vi­sions – made around 4,500 iden­ti­fi­ca­tions col­lec­tively in the same year, a stat Neville is fond of re­peat­ing, be­cause it em­pha­sises his unit’s com­par­a­tive suc­cess.

Since 2013, Neville has ar­gued that su­per recog­ni­tion should fall un­der the um­brella of foren­sic sci­ence. It is grad­u­ally be­com­ing as re­li­able as ex­ist­ing foren­sic pro­cesses, Neville says, so why not? But the Met has re­mained cau­tious, un­pre­pared to bet on an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process that is still young and with­out de­fined codes of an­a­lyt­i­cal prac­tice. Neville’s unit had not re­ceived the fund­ing or hi­er­ar­chal sup­port he ex­pected. His team, which re­mained small, was called upon only spar­ingly. And no re­gional units were es­tab­lished, de­spite ev­i­dence that su­per recog­nis­ers ex­isted through­out the force. (Pope works for a divi­sion named Safer Travel, and does not use the su­per recog­niser ti­tle.) Neville left the po­lice last year, un­ful­filled. He’s still bit­ter. “It was an ab­so­lute dis­as­ter,” he says. “They just didn’t em­brace it.”

Last year Neville co-founded Su­per Recog­nis­ers In­ter­na­tional, a pri­vate or­gan­i­sa­tion that em­ploys a ros­ter of civil­ian su­per recog­nis­ers – a ses­sion drum­mer, a car sales­man – to serve pri­vate clients, in­clud­ing at least one foot­ball club and, para­dox­i­cally, the po­lice force. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer is Kenny Long, a su­per recog­niser whom Neville em­ployed at the Met. Both are con­nected to the As­so­ci­a­tion of Su­per Recog­nis­ers, set up in May of this year, by Gilly Crich­ton, a se­cu­rity con­sul­tant, to help es­tab­lish su­per recog­ni­tion as a foren­sic tool. Pope is one of 20 men and women to have been ac­cred­ited by the as­so­ci­a­tion, though Neville es­ti­mates there are thou­sands more out there, hun­dreds in the po­lice force alone. Most of them have no idea of their po­ten­tial, he says. “You’ve got to ask your­self: Why isn’t the po­lice us­ing them more?”

When Richard Rus­sell first stum­bled on su­per recog­nis­ers, in 2009, he was re­search­ing prosopag­nosia, a dis­or­der in which peo­ple have great dif­fi­culty recog­nis­ing faces, some­times even their own. When he be­gan hear­ing from peo­ple who were con­vinced they pos­sessed re­mark­able fa­cial recog­ni­tion skills, he started test­ing their abil­i­ties, too. One of the pa­per’s par­tic­i­pants told him: “It doesn’t mat­ter how many years pass, if I’ve seen your face be­fore I will be able to re­call it.”

Rus­sell’s pa­per was the first to in­tro­duce su­per recog­nis­ers to the world, and only a hand­ful of pa­pers have been writ­ten since. Aca­demic study is not yet a decade old, and the re­search, though ex­cit­ing, is lim­ited. Ev­i­dence sug­gests the abil­ity might be ge­netic – that this skill is hard-wired, some­how, within 1-2% of the pop­u­la­tion. But no­body re­ally knows how a su­per recog­niser does what he or she does. When I asked Pope to ex­plain his process, he said: “It’s strange how it works,” and, “There’s no sys­tem.” He waved a fin­ger around his head, then shrugged.

That so lit­tle is known about su­per recog­ni­tion makes po­lice de­ploy­ment con­tro­ver­sial. Aca­demics ad­vise cau­tion, which is pre­sum­ably why forces are re­luc­tant to de­fine su­per recog­ni­tion as sci­ence.

“Foren­sic ex­am­in­ers will ap­proach a task an­a­lyt­i­cally,” says David White, a lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of New South Wales, in Syd­ney. “Su­per recog­nis­ers don’t do that. What they do is more in­tu­itive, a process whereby they look at one per­son and look at an­other and make a de­ci­sion very quickly.” That the abil­ity ex­ists is un­con­tested. “They’re very ac­cu­rate, ac­cord­ing to the data we’ve got – 20% higher than the av­er­age, which is around 70%,” White says. “But that still leaves 10%. They’re still mak­ing a high pro­por­tion of er­rors.”

White, who is orig­i­nally from Ed­in­burgh, has been study­ing vis­ual per­cep­tion of peo­ple for a decade, but still be­lieves “there are a lot of gaps to be filled in our knowl­edge”. How do you mea­sure a su­per recog­niser’s abil­ity? How do you de­fine their role in real-life sce­nar­ios? Are they just very good at lab­o­ra­tory tests?

White, like his col­league Anna Bobak, a re­search as­sis­tant in psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, wor­ries about po­lice mis­use, par­tic­u­larly in court sit­u­a­tions, when a jury of­ten leans heav­ily on eye wit­ness tes­ti­mony.

“This type of ev­i­dence turns out to be par­tic­u­larly com­pelling,” White says, “and it’s likely to be even more com­pelling with the ‘su­per recog­niser’ term at­tached to it.” The ti­tle is loaded with in­vin­ci­bil­ity, he says.

When I spoke to Bobak later, she told me: “I don’t re­ally like this term ‘su­per recog­niser’. It im­plies that they are in­fal­li­ble.”

When I ask Pope if he’s ever been wrong, he nods. “I’ll look at a still and I’ll think it’s some­body and…” He tails off. “I’m hu­man. I’m go­ing to make mis­takes.” Does it hap­pen of­ten? “Not very.” He tells me a story. A few years ago, Pope iden­ti­fied a sus­pect who hap­pened to be an iden­ti­cal twin. When Pope was called as a wit­ness in court, the pros­e­cu­tion asked how he could be cer­tain he’d iden­ti­fied the cor­rect brother. Dur­ing the process of recog­ni­tion, Pope doesn’t fo­cus on a par­tic­u­lar fa­cial de­tail – a mole, say – and en­sure the same de­tail ap­pears in the same place in other im­ages. His ap­proach is “holis­tic” – en­tire faces slip into the dark re­cesses of his mind and lodge, await­ing re­call.

“I don’t know,” he told the pros­e­cu­tor. “I just can.” It wasn’t good enough; the sus­pect was re­leased. “It’s frus­trat­ing,” he tells me now. “I’d love to be able to say how I can know it was this per­son. But it’s weird. I re­ally can’t de­scribe how it hap­pens.” ■

‘I’m lucky to be in a job where I can use it’: (from left) Andy Pope iden­ti­fied more than 1,000 sus­pects in five years; and Mick Neville, who set up the UK’s first su­per recog­niser po­lice unit

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