Patrick Radden Keefe
The New Yorker
… The transit police found themselves in a familiar predicament: a case in which a crime is captured on video but no one can identify the perpetrator.
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 focussing on gangs, studied the grainy image of a young man who had hurled petrol bombs and set fire to cars. The rioter wore a woollen 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…