It was news that captured attention around the world: In March 2018, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, England. Suspicions quickly mounted that Russia was responsible for the attack.
The victims spent weeks in critical condition. Ultimately, they survived, but police were left with a lot of unanswered questions about the suspects. Officials began collecting thousands of hours of video surveillance footage from ports, train stations, car dashboards, storefronts, and the streets surrounding Skripal’s home.
To help sift through the vast amount of data, London’s Metropolitan Police Service turned to an unusual unit within the force: the super-recognizers, people with a rare and uncanny ability to remember faces—even those of strangers they encountered briefly or a long time ago, either in person or in an image or video. It’s a skill that’s estimated to affect just 1 to 2 percent of the population—and an extraordinary one at that.
The super-recognizers worked as part of a Metropolitan Police unit founded by now-retired Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville. According to The Times, the team helped narrow down an initially long list of possible suspects by identifying people on CCTV footage who appeared to move suspiciously. That information was then cross-referenced with passport data of Russians who left the UK around the time of the poisoning as well as information about potential suspects’ cellphone and bank card usage.
Months of extensive police work ultimately pointed to two Russian nationals who were discovered on UK airport security cameras before traveling to Salisbury. Officials concluded that the two men had poisoned the Skripals with the powerful nerve agent novichok. In 2021, a third man was also charged in the attack.
The UK isn’t the only country that’s starting to recognize the value of super-recognizers in law enforcement. Police forces in countries like Germany and Australia are starting to weigh opportunities to deploy people with the unique skill.
So, how effective are super-recognizers in solving crimes? While the anecdotal evidence shows they can play an important role in criminal investigations, some research has raised questions that are worth exploring.
Super-Recognizers: The Basics
Experts have been studying super-recognizers ever since a 2009 paper by Dr. Richard Russell, professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, first noted their existence.
“A super-recognizer is someone who has an excellent face recognition ability in comparison to the average member of the public,” Dr. Josh Davis, professor in applied psychology at the University of Greenwich in London and an expert on super-recognizers, tells Mental Floss. “They tend to be able to remember faces that they see for much longer.”
Super-recognizers are far more likely than the rest of us, for example, to identify the face of somebody they walked past on the street or in the supermarket months or even years later. You can’t teach yourself to become a super-recognizer—and research suggests the ability is probably inherited.
Super-recognition is at the opposite end of the spectrum from prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” a condition characterized by extremely poor facial recognition. According to super-recognizer Kelly Desborough, after looking at a stranger's face for just a few seconds, “It will imprint into my brain somehow, and then I can go find them in a crowd of 40,000 people,” she tells Mental Floss. Desborough works as chief operating officer of Super Recognisers International, an organization that offers super-recognizer testing and related law enforcement training.
Different lab groups have developed tests to identify super-recognizers, such as one by Greenwich University and another from the University of New South Wales, Australia. While all tests differ to some degree, Davis says most involve either identifying a face you’ve seen in a different setting after a short period of time, or face-matching, where you look at two different facial images on a page and decide whether they show the same person.
How Super-Recognizers Help Investigations
Neville, who’s now CEO of Super Recognisers International, began using super-recognizers in police work after noticing that some officers in the Metropolitan Police were exceptionally good at making facial identifications—so he partnered with Davis to test them in 2011.
During riots in London that same year, police obtained over 100,000 hours of CCTV footage and 4000 images of potential suspects in looting or violent attacks. The super-recognizers stepped in to help, and just over 1000 defendants later appeared in court, according to the BBC. After that, an official police unit was officially created.
Davis, who works with police forces in different countries to test potential super-recognizers, believes law enforcement should only use super-recognizers in investigations if they get superior scores across a minimum of about 10 types of facial recognition tests. Most of these tests gauge a person's ability to match the facial features or distances between the features in a set of portraits.
While the super-recognizers unit within the Metropolitan Police Service is perhaps the most notable example to date, the Queensland Police Service in Australia has also begun deploying super-recognizers. After Senior Sergeant Chris Tritton was himself identified as a super-recognizer, he contacted Davis and other experts and spoke with Mick Neville to learn more.
Now, Queensland has a team of 19 super-recognizers: detectives, general duties police, intelligence analysts, and others. They currently operate in their full-time normal roles and complete facial identifications when they find the time, with plans to create a more permanent team, Tritton tells Mental Floss.
In addition to suspects in assaults, robberies, and sexual assaults, “We often identify people who are currently in police custody either refusing to state their name or are unconscious from drug or alcohol effects,” Tritton says. “We have identified deceased persons who do not have any identification on them, and [whose] fingerprints could not identify them because they have never been arrested and don't have fingerprints on file.”
According to WIRED, super-recognizers may even be able to outperform facial recognition technology in cases where suspects in video footage are obscured or seen from a different angle.
Desborough frequently uses her skill to help with different kinds of criminal investigations, and helping gather evidence in murder investigations gives her the greatest sense of fulfillment.
“When you can make a difference and create a package of evidence for the prosecution and you get a result—I think that’s probably the most satisfying part of the job,” Desborough says.
The Limits of Super-Recognition
While it’s clear that super-recognizers can provide value in police work, some researchers have raised questions about how super-recognizers are identified and tested for these kinds of tasks. If the most-used tests, which are typically performed under lab conditions, don’t assess potential super-recognizers based on their ability to complete the duties they would perform in an actual investigation, how can you ensure they are truly well-equipped for the job?
“You need to think, ‘What is the task that the people are supposed to do?’ and design experiments with material that’s appropriate so that it reflects the real-world conditions,” says Dr. Meike Ramon, assistant professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the head of the Applied Face Cognition Lab.
“We do have strong evidence to suggest that if you identify the people properly, you can expect an increase in performance if you give them the right environment to work in,” Ramon tells Mental Floss. “I have been working with the Berlin Police for 5.5 years now; together, we developed a test assessing officers’ face-processing skills using authentic police material.”
Another common hesitation surrounding super-recognizers being used in police work: “How do you define a super-recognizer [and] do they give evidence in a court of law?” Davis says. While these people can provide strong evidence, no super-recognizer has scored 100 percent on every single test they’ve taken, which is bound to invite problems. Generally, Davis says, in the UK they’re treated as witnesses to crimes, which they often viewed repeatedly on CCTV footage.
Some police units also wonder whether super-recognizers can really identify faces as accurately as artificial intelligence. To that, Davis responds, “There are some mistakes that a computer would make that a human would never do, and vice versa,” adding, “the combination of the two is probably best: a super-recognizer and a face-recognition system.”