CCTV cameras have for years been the bugbear of civil rights groups and raised concerns over privacy issues. But since the riots of 2011 CCTV footage is being increasingly seen as a credible tool to bring criminals to justice. In particular the term ‘Super Recognisers’ has been coined to refer to mainly Police Officers with exceptional abilities to identify criminals caught on camera. The Met has also recently implemented a pro-active Super Recogniser Unit in New Scotland Yard where the job is on full time secondment just to look at images to try to solve crimes.
Dr Josh P Davis, senior Lecturer at the Psychology and Counselling Sept, Greenwich University explains the reasons why some people are better at facial recognition than others.
“Studies suggest that faces might be a unique stimuli because there is an area in the brain called the Fusiform gyrus which has been linked with neural pathways related to recognition. If it is damaged people lose the ability to recognise faces altogether commonly known as ‘face blindness’ and equally it is this part of the brain that is most likely the reason for exceptional facial recognition abilities in certain people”
Any reader believing that such abilities are a cinch may have second thoughts after taking part in tests which involve identifying faces as portrayed with the kind of grainy, poor quality CCTV images that SR’s have to trail through. My own efforts after participating in an online test proved to show not such a remarkable ability to identify faces but more bewildering an exceptional skill at identifying guitars!
Although CCTV evidence has been presented in courts over the years it was the unprecedented events of 2011 that led to a greater reliance on images to identify rioters and officers who were particularly good at recognition. “I met Mick Neville from New Scotland Yard in 2010” recalls Davis “He was discussing that they first started keeping records of who was making identifications from CCTV. They realised that it was the same police officers over and over again. So in April 2011 we decided to test some of these people because I was not necessarily convinced that they would be better based on my research. But they came out exceptionally highly. Then the riots happened three months later and that’s when we realised that we had something because it was the people again who started to identify the rioters”
So why are Super Recognisers often more effective and reliable than computer software? Cameras work well when presented with clear, close up images of a face staring at the camera standing still. The face recognition systems can then compare those images with information on their inner database. People however are less likely to be confused by faces obstructed by make-up, masks and hairstyles. Even though SR abilities are seen as being ‘innate’ as opposed to ‘learned’ can specialist training make a difference?
“I don’t think to date that any specific training in face recognition works beyond advising people to use other types of ‘cues’ and not just the face” affirms Davis. “What you can get is improvements such as asking are two images the same person, so that people will then look at the ears and other parts of the face that they wouldn’t normally process”
As for Super Recognisers sharing specific traits the jury is still out on whether certain types of people are better than others. Davis believes that more research needs to be carried out. “Autism seems to be related to poor face recognition in most cases but one of the things that we’ve found from people who have scored quite highly is that some of them have said that they are on the autism scale. Extroversion is also related to better face recognition but again we find that we have people who sound very introverted when they email us”
At present even though the Met is thinking of casting its net out to the public to find Super
Recognisers it is Police Officers with years of experience on the beat who are bringing in results. “The Met has an average of about 500 new images of crimes come through every week and about 250 of those are identified eventually. Half are by Super Recognisers (officers) and about 5% of members of the public. That’s because not many members of the public are looking regularly at CCTV images and also police officers are more likely to meet criminals to recognise them on images. When you contrast the 30,000 Metropolitan police officers with the 140 Super Recognisers that’s an awfully high percentage of identification is being made by that very small pool”
Hopefully after years of being derided as a social nuisance and offender against privacy, CCTV cameras up and down the country may be seen in a more positive light due to the crime busting skills of Super Recognisers helping to identify criminals and reinforce their presence as a deterrent rather than simply providing evidence after the fact.