STORY: "Letter from London: The detectives who never forgot a face," by Patrick Radden Keefe, published by The New Yorker in August 22, 2016 issue;
SUB-HEADING; "London’s new squad of “super-recognizers” could inspire a revolution in policing."
SUB-HEADING: " "
GIST: "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......Three times a week, the Met issues an online bulletin, “Caught on Camera,” featuring video stills of unidentified suspects committing crimes. Many officers ignore it, but Porritt found the activity of picking out faces quietly absorbing, like doing a crossword puzzle. He soon became known for his prowess at making identifications—“idents,” in the Scotland Yard vernacular—and last year he was asked to join the super-recognizers......In 2008, a postdoctoral student at Harvard named Richard Russell began working with a team of perceptual psychologists on a study of prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” a condition in which patients are unable to recognize human faces. In extreme cases, prosopagnosia can be a socially debilitating affliction: a mother tries to retrieve the wrong child from day care because she does not recognize her own baby; a patient is shown a photograph of a woman and wonders who it is, only to be informed that she is looking at a picture of herself. But many people suffer from milder forms of face blindness, and may not realize that they are in any way abnormal. “We’re not good at talking about how we recognize faces,” Russell said. “So we assume that other people are like us.” Until recently, only a few hundred prosopagnosics had been studied, and from this research neuroscientists and perceptual psychologists had established a binary “pathological” model: either you were normal, and could recognize faces, or you had face blindness. But new studies have indicated that although prosopagnosia can result from a stroke or traumatic brain injury, it is a heritable condition that is sometimes present from birth. It’s also much more widespread than was previously believed. With the advent of the Internet, formerly isolated individuals have found a community of fellow-sufferers. Collaborating with two psychologists, Ken Nakayama and Brad Duchaine, Russell disseminated a bulletin in the Boston area seeking research subjects who thought that they might be face blind. The researchers heard back from many people who believed that they were prosopagnosic. But they also heard from a small group who said that they were “the opposite.” Russell had come to suspect that facial recognition might not be simply a faculty that was either present or absent. What if it was on a spectrum? If most people are pretty good at recognizing faces and prosopagnosics are terrible at it, Russell recalls thinking, shouldn’t there be “some people on the high end”?...Being a super-recognizer can be draining: there is no off switch for this mysterious capability. It is not uncommon for a super-recognizer, out on the town with friends, to bolt off after spotting someone with an outstanding warrant. Before joining the unit, James Rabbett, a young detective with a hipster beard, won an award for making two hundred arrests in a year. Rabbett, who has a cocksure manner, displays powers of recognition that are exceptional even by the unit’s standards. He told me that, since joining the team full time, six months ago, he has made nearly six hundred identifications. Rabbett sometimes makes as many as five arrests a week while off-duty. This is fantastic for racking up stats, if less than conducive to a fulfilling social life. “It’s become a bit of a burden,” he allowed. Once, Rabbett was off-duty in Finsbury Park when he recognized a jewel thief and chased him down. A year earlier, he had glanced at the man’s image on a wanted poster. “You’re nicked on suspicion of stealing a bag a year ago!” Rabbett said. The thief, we may fairly assume, was surprised. (He subsequently pleaded guilty.) “Faces are special,” brain scientists like to say. Days after birth, an infant can distinguish its mother’s face from those of other women. Babies are more reliably engaged by a sketch of a face than they are by other images. Though human faces are quite similar in their basic composition, most of us can differentiate effortlessly among them. A face is a codex of social information: it can often tell us, at a glance, someone’s age, gender, racial background, mood. Using f.M.R.I. scans, researchers have discovered that certain areas of the brain are hardwired for processing faces..........“It’s bullshit,” Mick Neville said when I asked him about automated facial recognition. “Fantasyland.” At the airport, when a scanner compares your face with your passport photo, Neville explained, “The lighting’s perfect, the angle’s perfect.” By contrast, the average human can recognize a family member from behind. “No computer will ever be able to do that.” Some industry observers share his skepticism. In 2014, Shahar Belkin, a co-founder of FST Biometrics, which develops facial-recognition technology, told The Verge that any firm promising to deliver “near-human” capabilities is lying. “The difference between a human brain and a computer is huge,” he said.........Mick Neville often tells a story about the brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton, who were hanged in 1905 for murdering a married couple while robbing their shop, in Deptford. No witnesses could definitively link the brothers to the crime, but on an empty cash box investigators discovered a greasy thumbprint that turned out to be a match for Alfred Stratton. It was the first time that fingerprint analysis helped secure a murder conviction in Great Britain. Neville believes that we are on the cusp of what he calls “the third revolution in forensics.” He expects that, as with fingerprints and DNA, CCTV imagery will be embraced as a forensic science and accorded the respect and the resources it deserves. “In the Met, we solve about two thousand cases a year with fingerprints and another two thousand with DNA,” he told me. “This year, we solved twenty-five hundred crimes using imagery, and it’s about ten times cheaper than those methods.” The super-recognizers already have made a difference in U.K. law. Traditionally, an officer who identified someone in court had to demonstrate prior acquaintance with the individual. But the super-recognizers have succeeded with prosecutions in which they have offered “indirect identifications”—establishing familiarity with a suspect through repeated exposure to his likeness on CCTV. When I asked Neville how reliable this standard was, he replied, “I’ve never met Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager. But I would recognize him.” The super-recognizers acknowledge that they are not infallible, which is why they have the peer-review process as a safeguard. According to statistics that they freely share with the press, seventy-three per cent of their identifications have led to criminal charges; many of these suspects, realizing that they have been caught in flagrante, plead guilty. But thirteen per cent of the unit’s identifications have been wrong. Sometimes the super-recognizers have identified someone as the culprit of a crime only to discover that the suspect was in jail when the incident took place. Porritt emphasized that suspects very seldom go to prison solely on the basis of their identifications. “It’s never our word alone that puts someone away,” he said. “What we do, by identifying suspects, is help direct the investigation.” Neville plans to retire soon, and he feels that his forensic contributions have not yet been adequately appreciated by the Met. “I’ve been the same rank for fifteen years,” he told me. “If I worked for the Ford Motor Company and figured out how to make more cars at a fraction of the cost, I’d be promoted.” He plans to follow the example of Bill Bratton and Jack Maple, who became international consultants after devising the heralded CompStat system at the New York City Police Department. Neville hopes to advise other departments, for a fee, on how to identify and train their own super-recognizers. The police department of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently announced that it is working with psychologists at Dartmouth and Harvard to test the facial-recognition capabilities of its officers. Other departments are likely to follow."
The entire story can be found at:http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/londons-super-recognizer-police-force
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