Super recognisers: the people who never forget a face

We all have an innate ability to pick a face out of a crowd. But some can memorise thousands of people – often seen only fleetingly on CCTV. Alex Moshakis from the Guardian newspaper meets the ‘super recognisers’

Earlier this year, a softly-spoken community support officer named Andy Pope received the Chief Constable’s Award, an honour bestowed on police force employees who’ve shown extraordinary bravery, or remarkable dedication, or both. In Pope’s case, the award related to a peculiar knack. Between 2012 and 2017, he identified 1,000 criminal suspects, sometimes by connecting images taken from CCTV footage to mugshots available on the police database, which he does nearly every morning, but more often while riding the West Midlands train, bus and tram network, which falls under his beat. (He calls at least one Birmingham bus route “my baby”.) By any measurement, Pope’s achievement was staggering. During the same period, most of his colleagues had struggled to make even a 10th of his tally, and some had made no identifications at all. When I mentioned Pope’s stats to one chief superintendent, he was shocked. “Unbelievable,” he said. “In 20 years I’ve only identified about 30 people.”

Pope has recognised suspects wanted for all manner of serious crimes, from assault and exposure to theft. And, on the strength of his identifications, many of those perpetrators have been arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

But at the awards ceremony Pope felt out of place, as though he didn’t deserve the accolade. “You’re seeing officers getting awards for various things,” he says. “Incidents that could have been very, very hairy at the time. And I’m thinking: ‘Do I really belong in this room?’ I just pick people out on CCTV and write up a quick statement.”

He was unsure whether or not he should be celebrated for the ability to recall a face, a skill he describes as “just something I’m able to do”, an unconscious act as normal to him as blinking. However, Pope is often reminded – by his superiors, and by scientists interested in scanning and monitoring his brain – that very few people are able to do what he does. But he bristles at the suggestion that he’s remarkable.

“I don’t think I’m extraordinary or anything like that,” he says. “I’m just lucky to be in a job where I’m able to use it.

‘I’m lucky to be in a job where I can use it’: Andy Pope identified more than 1,000 suspects in five years. Photograph: Fabio De Paola for the Observer

Pope is talking to me in Birmingham, near to his division’s office, the entire floor of a police building in the city centre. He’s on patrol, in uniform, reliving the ceremony while studying passers-by with a series of left-right scans. One man in a leather jacket. Another in overalls. Nobody he’s seen before. He does this most days, left-right, left-right, on duty and off. “My wife has to say, ‘Andy, you’re not at work now.’”

Pope, 40, is a “super recogniser”, a term coined in a 2009 paper by Richard Russell, now an associate professor of psychology at Gettysburg College, to describe “people with extraordinary face-recognition ability”. By some cognitive quirk, Pope is able to memorise thousands of faces, often having glimpsed each only once. It’s an unconscious act; his mind is an enormous and automatic image library. Some faces he files for years. In one case, while patrolling a West Midlands high street, Pope recognised a suspect two years after he’d first seen his picture. The perpetrator, later convicted for exposure, thought he’d evaded capture. He regularly recalls faces he’s seen six or 12 months earlier, when much of the hope of finding a suspect has ebbed away, and officers are relying on the individual to re-offend in order to make an arrest.

Gareth Morris, who was once Pope’s sergeant and is now a chief superintendent with the Gloucestershire police, told me: “Without Andy’s intervention, absolutely, some of these cases would have gone unsolved.”

For much of his life Pope had no grasp of his talent. Neither his dad, an architectural technician, nor his mum, a secretary, displayed the same ability. As a child, Pope remembers watching television and being able to recall the names of obscure actors he’d once noticed in the background of other programmes – a handy social skill, but not one to build a career on. When he finished school he started working in a shop, then at the same architecture firm his dad worked for, as the office manager. He was good at remembering the faces of people he met, but he “just thought everyone else could do it, too”.

Pope joined the police in 2005 and remained close to anonymous in the force until 2011, when he met Morris. “He brought a photo to me,” Morris recalls, “and told me he wanted to grab an officer and find the guy in the photograph and arrest him.” The image, which Pope had noticed on a police bulletin, featured a man wanted for assault, but it was grainy and shot from an awkward angle. Morris was sceptical – “I said to him, ‘I’d struggle to recognise my own mother in this photograph’” – and he demurred, but Pope was confident, and he turned out to be correct. As soon as the suspect was arrested, he broke down. “He admitted to it right there and then.”

Morris was stunned. When Pope correctly identified another suspect, and another one after that, and showed absolutely no signs of slowing down, they realised the ability was remarkable. From then on, when Morris spoke to contacts in other police divisions, he would inform them of Pope’s skill, and offer out his services.

But take-up was limited. Sometimes Morris worried that Pope’s ability was being wasted. Here was an individual somehow able to identify hundreds of wanted suspects, being underused. “We all considered it,” Morris says. “Is there another application?”

Super recognisers like Pope have been in the news lately. In September, two super recognisers employed by the Metropolitan Police Force identified the Russian nationals later accused of the Salisbury Novichok poisonings, having sifted through hours of CCTV footage. In August, the Met announced it would abandon the use of facial recognition software at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival (in previous years the technology had confused men with women – an embarrassing blunder), but that it would instead deploy super recognisers, who it considered better able to accurately spot the faces of troublemakers in dense crowds.

Super recognition isn’t a new phenomenon. Some of us have been better than others at recalling faces for as long as anyone can remember. But the ability has only recently been acknowledged as a professional investigative skill, and it has been embraced by the police hesitantly. That has exasperated super-recognition advocates, including Josh Davis, a psychology lecturer at the University of Greenwich, and Mick Neville, a one-time military man and former detective chief inspector at Scotland Yard, who set up the UK’s first dedicated super recogniser police unit in 2013.

Neville is from Lancashire, and he speaks, at least over the phone, in a gruff huff. For his unit he selected six officers, a mixed bunch, who’d scored highly on facial recognition tests. (Super recognisers earn their title for acing exams like the Cambridge Face Memory Test, at which Pope is a master.) Neville’s team helped formalise super recognition within police investigative processes. In 2016, it made more than 2,500 primary identifications – detections that have resulted in “a charge, caution, or other authorised clear-up”, in police parlance – for crimes including first-degree murder. Forensic departments – DNA and fingerprint analysis divisions – made around 4,500 identifications collectively in the same year, a stat Neville is fond of repeating, because it emphasises his unit’s comparative success.

Since 2013, Neville has argued that super recognition should fall under the umbrella of forensic science. It is gradually becoming as reliable as existing forensic processes, Neville says, so why not? But the Met has remained cautious, unprepared to bet on an identification process that is still young and without defined codes of analytical practice. Neville’s unit had not received the funding or hierarchal support he expected. His team, which remained small, was called upon only sparingly. And no regional units were established, despite evidence that super recognisers existed throughout the force. (Pope works for a division named Safer Travel, and does not use the super recogniser title.) Neville left the police last year, unfulfilled. He’s still bitter. “It was an absolute disaster,” he says. “They just didn’t embrace it.”

Last year Neville co-founded Super Recognisers International, a private organisation that employs a roster of civilian super recognisers – a session drummer, a car salesman – to serve private clients, including at least one football club and, paradoxically, the police force. The organisation’s chief operating officer is Kenny Long, a super recogniser whom Neville employed at the Met. Both are connected to the Association of Super Recognisers, set up in May of this year, by Gilly Crichton, a security consultant, to help establish super recognition as a forensic tool. Pope is one of 20 men and women to have been accredited by the association, though Neville estimates there are thousands more out there, hundreds in the police force alone. Most of them have no idea of their potential, he says. “You’ve got to ask yourself: Why isn’t the police using them more?”

When Richard Russell first stumbled on super recognisers, in 2009, he was researching prosopagnosia, a disorder in which people have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own. When he began hearing from people who were convinced they possessed remarkable facial recognition skills, he started testing their abilities, too. One of the paper’s participants told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass, if I’ve seen your face before I will be able to recall it.” 

Russell’s paper was the first to introduce super recognisers to the world, and only a handful of papers have been written since. Academic study is not yet a decade old, and the research, though exciting, is limited. Evidence suggests the ability might be genetic – that this skill is hard-wired, somehow, within 1-2% of the population. But nobody really knows how a super recogniser does what he or she does. When I asked Pope to explain his process, he said: “It’s strange how it works,” and “there’s no system.” He waved a finger around his head, then shrugged.

That so little is known about super recognition makes police deployment controversial. Academics advise caution, which is presumably why forces are reluctant to define super recognition as science.

“Forensic examiners will approach a task analytically,” says David White, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney. “Super recognisers don’t do that. What they do is more intuitive, a process whereby they look at one person and look at another and make a decision very quickly.” That the ability exists is uncontested. “They’re very accurate, according to the data we’ve got – 20% higher than the average, which is around 70%,” White says. “But that still leaves 10%. They’re still making a high proportion of errors.”

White, who is originally from Edinburgh, has been studying visual perception of people for a decade, but still believes “there are a lot of gaps to be filled in our knowledge”. How do you measure a super recogniser’s ability? How do you define their role in real-life scenarios? Are they just very good at laboratory tests?

White, like his colleague Anna Bobak, a research assistant in psychology at the University of Stirling, worries about police misuse, particularly in court situations, when a jury often leans heavily on eye witness testimony.

“This type of evidence turns out to be particularly compelling,” White says, “and it’s likely to be even more compelling with the ‘super recogniser’ term attached to it.” The title is loaded with invincibility, he says.

When I spoke to Bobak later, she told me: “I don’t really like this term ‘super recogniser’. It implies that they are infallible.”

When I ask Pope if he’s ever been wrong, he nods. “I’ll look at a still and I’ll think it’s somebody and…” He tails off. “I’m human. I’m going to make mistakes.” Does it happen often? “Not very.” He tells me a story. A few years ago, Pope identified a suspect who happened to be an identical twin. When Pope was called as a witness in court, the prosecution asked how he could be certain he’d identified the correct brother. During the process of recognition, Pope doesn’t focus on a particular facial detail – a mole, say – and ensure the same detail appears in the same place in other images. His approach is “holistic” – entire faces slip into the dark recesses of his mind and lodge, awaiting recall.

“I don’t know,” he told the prosecutor. “I just can.” It wasn’t good enough; the suspect was released. “It’s frustrating,” he tells me now. “I’d love to be able to say how I can know it was this person. But it’s weird. I really can’t describe how it happens.”

Memory tests

How do we remember faces and is there a limit to our recall?

• How many faces can we remember?
Last month a research team at the University of York published a paper in which they estimated that, on average, we’re able to recognise around 5,000 different faces. Humans are expert at recognising familiar faces, though some of us are more expert than others. “Individual differences are large,” the study’s authors wrote. One person might be able to remember 10,000, while another may only be able to recognise 1,000. Dr Rob Jenkins, who led the research, considered the average estimate conservative. “We haven’t yet found a limit on how many faces the brain can handle,” he said.

• How do we do it?
Neuroscientists generally agree that facial recognition takes place in the temporal lobe, a region of the brain just above the ear, and that the process is complex. A 2017 study at the California Institute of Technology, in which a team tested the facial recognition of macaques, suggests that neurons in the temporal lobe react to different aspects of the face. Some deal with eye colour, for example, while others react to the distance between the eyes. These pieces of information, when combined, allow macaques to create a full image – the face is constructed as a sum of parts. It takes relatively few neurons to manufacture a complete picture, which might explain why we are able to recall so many.

• Is it related to age?
It could depend on how old we are. The University of York researchers tested a group whose average age was 24, but the scientists were unsure whether ageing affected ability. “It would be interesting to see whether there is a peak age for the number of faces we know,” Jenkins said. “Perhaps we accumulate faces throughout our lifetimes, or perhaps we start to forget some after we reach a certain age.”