Eliot Porritt was always good at remembering a face, even as a child sitting at home with his father watching old films.
‘I could always spot obscure actors and it became a bit of a game recalling which other movies they had appeared in,’ he says.
Now, as Detective Sergeant Eliot Porritt of the Metropolitan Police, he puts his unlikely superpower to good use, identifying criminals in a crowd or caught in the act on CCTV.
DS Porritt is a ‘super recogniser’, one of just seven officers in a specialist unit at Scotland Yard dedicated to that very small percentage of the general population — possibly just 1 per cent — who possess an exceptional ability to identify unfamiliar faces. They might remember four times as many faces in pictures or crowds as a normal person.
These faces can belong to pickpockets operating in darkness during pop concerts, robbers captured on poor-quality CCTV in corner shops or suspects in the street partially obscured by hats or hoods or shadows.
One person who is a ‘super recogniser’ is Andy Pope (pictured), a police community support officer who patrols transport hubs in the West Midlands armed only with his spectacular photographic memory
‘You can’t train somebody to be a super-recogniser,’ says DS Porritt. ‘You either have it, or you don’t.’
One person who definitely has it is Andy Pope, a police community support officer who patrols transport hubs in the West Midlands armed only with his spectacular photographic memory.
That may not sound like a blockbuster job, but yesterday he hit the headlines when it was revealed, incredibly, that the 42-year-old has used his exceptional gift to catch almost 2,000 suspects — including 16 in just one day.
They included one unsuspecting criminal whom he spotted two whole years after seeing his picture, and another whom he recognised simply from a mole on his face.
‘I’m fortunate faces stick in my memory,’ Pope says modestly.
Meanwhile, DS Porrit’s small Scotland Yard team has become a world leader in super-recognition — using the police’s vast database of CCTV images to build evidence against previously unidentified criminals and connect them to previously unsolved crimes.
So instead of a thief being convicted for a single offence and getting off with a slap on the wrist, he goes to prison on multiple charges because the super recognisers have spotted him at work — often sporting a very different appearance — in video recordings of crimes that have been stored for months or even years.
The term ‘super recogniser’ was coined in 2009 by American psychologist Richard Russell, who believes certain behaviour can indicate if a person possesses the gift.
One of the officers involved was PC Gary Collins (pictured), widely regarded as the Met’s top super recogniser
‘If you have experiences where you often recognise people out of context, that’s an indicator.’
So what is going in the head of a super recogniser?
Researchers think it has something to do with part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, which displays greater activity when faces are being studied. It may be enhanced in super recognisers.
‘People who are better at face recognition are using a holistic whole-face process, whereas people who are less good use a feature-by-feature approach,’ says Dr Josh Davis, a Reader in Applied Psychology at the University of Greenwich.
‘I suspect super recognisers are using a combination of both — but the funny thing is that they find it difficult to articulate what they are doing.’
Super recognisers would be useless without raw material and that is supplied by owners of the estimated 420,000 CCTV cameras in London.
The Met has a database of some 70,000 pictures of crimes in progress supplied by banks, stores and shops, and catalogued by the software company 3rd Forensic. This library is unmatched in the world.
The Met has a database of some 70,000 pictures of crimes in progress supplied by banks, stores and shops, and catalogued by the software company 3rd Forensic (stock photo)
Aided by algorithms and facial recognition technology, recognisers begin their search broadly before homing in on one or more suspects. So a typical trawl of the database would begin with search words such as ‘male, bald, glasses’. This would pull up all men fitting that description.
More importantly, it’s frighteningly effective. When I visited the Scotland Yard unit, I was told it secures an 82 per cent charge rate. The remaining 18 per cent of investigations ended for a variety of reasons, and in only 4 per cent of cases were the super recognisers judged to have been wrong.
DS Porritt was studying three images of a woman, caught on camera shoplifting, when I visited him. Two clear images are taken from different angles and the third is very grainy.
‘To me, it is fairly obvious that they are the same person but it might not be obvious to someone who is not a super recogniser,’ says the officer.
‘I’m concentrating on lines under the cheekbone and around the nose, and also the chin — features that cannot be altered.’
Acute observations such as these have been crucial to solving cases in recent years.
The Scotland Yard unit’s formation owes much to the London riots of 2011. On that occasion, super recognisers identified more than 600 suspects from some 5,000 images, two-thirds of whom ended up in court.
One of the officers involved was PC Gary Collins, widely regarded as the Met’s top super recogniser.
Collins had realised soon after joining the police force in 1995 that he had a gift: ‘I was very good at looking at pictures on walls and going out on patrol and saying, “That’s that person”.’ He recalls ‘stopping people once and remembering them years later’.
When the riots started, Collins was off work. ‘I was watching Sky News and I immediately recognised some people.’ Collins cut short his holiday to go into work.
‘I spent six months going through the CCTV,’ he says. ‘The figures in the footage would often have their faces covered — there were lots I identified just by their eyes.’
Stephen Prince was one of them. During the riots he had broken into shops, thrown petrol bombs and set fire to cars. He had covered his face with a red bandana and had a black woollen hat pulled low over his forehead. But PC Collins got him.
‘The last time I’d seen Prince was about six years earlier,’ he said. ‘But I was positive it was him — I knew it straightaway from his eyes.’
Prince was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. But super recognisers are not simply confined to the office.
In October 2013, one such team was sent in to combat Eastern European gangs stealing mobile phones at pop concerts.
At a previous event 140 phones had been stolen, but when super recognisers were deployed, just five phones were taken over two nights.
Even murders have been solved by recognising a suspect in different locations and then finding the body as a consequence.
What about disguise? ‘I haven’t come across a Moriarty character who can deceive everybody,’ DS Porritt says. ‘We can always recognise them.’
So criminals beware. The police may not have found you yet. But they certainly haven’t forgotten you.