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Brits Form Special Police Unit to Recognize Facial Images

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Security monitorsby Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker

London has more than eight million residents; unless somebody recognizes a suspect, CCTV footage is effectively useless. Investigators circulated photographs of the man with the mustache, but nobody came forward with information. So they turned to a tiny unit that had recently been established by London’s Metropolitan Police Service. In Room 901 of New Scotland Yard, the police had assembled half a dozen officers who shared an unusual talent: they all had a preternatural ability to recognize human faces.

Most police precincts have an officer or two with a knack for recalling faces, but the Met (as the Metropolitan Police Service is known) is the first department in the world to create a specialized unit. The team is called the super-recognizers, and each member has taken a battery of tests, administered by scientists, to establish this uncanny credential. Glancing at a pixelated face in a low-resolution screen grab, super-recognizers can identify a crook with whom they had a chance encounter years earlier, or whom they recognize from a mug shot.

In 2011, after riots broke out in London, one super-recognizer, Gary Collins, a cop focusing on gangs, studied the grainy image of a young man who had hurled petrol bombs and set fire to cars. The rioter wore a woolen hat and a red bandanna, leaving only a sliver of his face uncovered, like a ninja. But the man had been arrested years earlier, and Collins had noticed him at the police station — in particular, his eyes. The rioter was convicted of arson and robbery, and is now serving six years.

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© 2016 The New Yorker

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