Scotland Yard is using "super-recognizers" to fight crime


(CBS News) The London police at Scotland Yard, like the police everywhere, use all kinds of technology to solve crimes, such as DNA evidence, modern forensics and fingerprints. However, they've also discovered that the best tool in fact may be the oldest tool: the human eyeball.

British officials have discovered that not all eyeballs are the same. They found out something they were not expecting at Scotland Yard a couple of years ago.

During the week of street rioting and looting that was the low-light of the 2011 London summer, much of the lawlessness was captured on security cameras, but unless those breaking the law could actually be identified, the images were useless as a policing tool.

Much vaunted computer facial recognition software was supposed to be able to spot the faces of known criminals in the crowd. Except, according to Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, something else worked better.

"We had 4,000 images and we put them through the facial recognition software. It picked out one suspect," said Neville. "I've got one officer here, P.C. Gary Collins, he picked out 180 suspects. So the human is 180 times better than the magic machine."

Police Constable Gary Collins has now identified more than 600 suspects for all sorts of crimes over the years, suspects no other person or machine managed to spot. He never stops.

He told CBS News' Mark Phillips that it becomes an "addiction" and he doesn't always know what he's looking for, but he knows he's got the knack.

Collins is called a "super-recognizer" and the trick for Scotland Yard has been to identify others like him. They're working with a psychologist, Dr. Josh Davis, to try to find other police officers who are also good at it.

Davis told Phillips that there are reasons why some people are good at it and others are not.

"There does seem to be some evidence that there might be some sort of genetic inheritance, maybe in the genes," he said. "Face recognition ability does seem to run in families to some extent."

Officials then take these so called super-recognizers and have them look at hundreds of photos of the unidentified suspects of various crimes. Or they look at moving security cam footage. Getting the best recognizers and the most pictures in the same place seems to work. In this one-day session, they identified 250 suspects.

"No one else in the world does it and I recommend to other police forces, use your officers in this way," said Neville. "Make sure you've got the images and you show them and you track them through. Your images will be as effective as fingerprints and DNA.

The ability to identify suspects from images is now considered such an effective tool that the police are now developing tests to be able to recruit people who come from that top one or two percent of the population which is better at it than everybody else.

For Mark Phillips' full report, watch the video in the player above.