Munich Police Recruiting Super Recognisers from the German Civil Service


From among literally thousands of civil servants, the Munich police have selected 37 Super Recognisers after months of testing,  All of those selected have a special gift: they can remember and recognize the faces of ‘persons of interest’ even under adverse conditions. They are able to filter them out of crowds even if disguised, aged or attempting to evade recognition.

How exactly these officials will be used in the future is currently work in progress.  Representing the first ever Super Recogniser unit in Germany, the Munich police will spearhead the way forward for their colleagues across the Country. Scientifically studies into super recognition were originated in England where a small unit has been working for London’s Metropolitan Police Service for the past 7 years to great effect in reducing crime and arresting serial offenders.

Research has indicated that only around one percent of all people are born with the ability to remember faces with this level of accuracy and reliability says Doctor Josh Davis, one of the leading scientists working in the field. The London-based researcher from the University of Greenwich helped Munich investigators to select the very best Super Recognizers from thousands of officials who were screened.

Not everyone who wears "Super" in the title is automatically a comic book hero. The Super Recognisers have no ‘supernatural’ abilities, but simply an extremely rare and exceptionally strong ability to recognize faces even in the dark, from on blurred photos, in crowds or hidden under a disguise.  In April 2011, Doctor Davis began exploring this gift with the Metropolitan Police officials.  He noticed that a very small group of police officers was responsible for a very high number of identifications. After a series of violent riots in the British capital in August 2011, a single policeman had managed to identify 180 known criminals by viewing many hours of video footage. The same material was scoured computer based facial recognition software - which landed just one single correct hit. Despite all the advances in computer technology, when recognizing faces, the human brain is vastly superior to the machine, says Davis.  But Super Recognisers are not in competition with contemporary facial recognition software.  The 2 work best together with the human confirming the systems findings and making the final recommendation to arrest.  In a tactical terrorist situation, such judgements could make the difference between life and death options.

The Munich Presidium learned about the special skills of its London colleagues and made initial contacts in August 2016.  Doctor Davis had meanwhile developed tests to help the British police look for Super Recognisers in their own ranks. "We do not think you can train that ability," the researcher explains.  The ability appears to be a genetic predisposition that is responsible for this talent.  There is evidence that the ability is hereditary, as well as its disabling nemesis, face blindness or prosopagnosia.  People who suffer from prosopagnosia can sometimes not even recognise close relatives or immediate family or friends.

The English researcher developed a multi-stage test procedure for the search for Super Recognisers, which now also includes the Munich police headquarters with its remit. The first internet-based test takes just five to ten minutes. Some 5300 police officers and employees of the Presidium participated voluntarily, reports police chief Andrä.  About one in four achieved the required score to progress to the second stage. The next filter reduced this total to around 90 employees. This group completed a several-hour audit in April under Davis's supervision. At the end of the month long process, just 37 out of 5,300 original participants were selected and can now call themselves Super Recognisers.

The daily routine of these 13 women and 24 men is not as yet fully defined.  Plans to put them all together in a dark room and let them stare at screens for eight hours are far from likely. For the time being, they will continue their normal duties and if, or when, necessary, they can be called upon to reinforce and assist conventional detectives working on difficult or extra-large cases. A project group is currently working on clarifying how best to employ their newly discovered skills.  For instance, they could be positioned at the entrances to football stadiums to identify those who are already banned from the stadium but trying to wheedle their way in. Alternatively, they could be used in the search for well-known pickpockets or shoplifter, who roam the City centre. 

The future direction for German police Super Recognisers may yet to be fully clear but they will make a significant impact on crime reduction.  Here come the Superwiedererkenner.