Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

September 28, 2013

'Super recognizers' fight crime

LONDON (AP) — Paul Hyland almost never forgets a face. He’s a “super recognizer,” 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, 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,” Hyland recalled, adding that neither of his colleagues recognized 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,” he said.

How does Hyland do it? Nobody knows. But since 2011, about 200 London police officers have been recruited to an elite squad of super recognizers. 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. Neville started the super recognizer unit after realizing 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 recognizers were responsible for nearly 30 percent of the identifications, including one officer who identified almost 300 people. A facial recognition software program made only one successful identification, according to Neville.

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