How Police Are Using 'Super Recognizers' Like Me to Track Criminals

Kelly Hearsey's job is to identify people from CCTV footage. She's freakishly good at it.
August 24, 2020, 7:40am
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All photos via Kelly Hearsey

The past few years has seen as an increasing number of countries develop AI technology to track and monitor their populations. China is at the forefront of this movement, while the American Civil Liberties Union warns the United States is in danger of replicating a similar program. For the most part, however, automated facial recognition is still in its infancy and many countries rely on humans to do the job. But not just any humans—people with a rare ability to accurately recognize faces in CCTV footage regardless of the angle, or how grainy or fleeting the image.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer. She works for Super Recognizers International Ltd, which is contracted by a range of police departments across the country. She took a test in 2018 and got the highest score they’d ever seen from over six million candidates. She’s since worked full-time as a super recognizer on everything from murder investigations to keeping notoriously disruptive fans out of sporting events.

VICE News caught up with her to hear what it’s like to have a real-life superpower.

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Kelly with her colleagues at work. ​All photos via Kelly Hearsey​​

VICE: Hi Kelly, what made you want to take the test in the first place?
Kelly Hearsey: I always knew I was good at recognizing faces. I’d be in the street and I’d see a face and know that it was my friend’s sister from when we were six. The last time I saw them could’ve been over 30 years ago. I’d go up to them and say “Oh my god, Amber, I can’t believe it, how’re you doing?” and she’d look at me blankly. It happened so often that I just thought I took more notice of people and I was completely forgettable. But it turns out that from a tiny millisecond—I don’t even need to get a good look at someone, I can just glance over my shoulder and back again—I’ll know who they are from decades ago.

Silly things like that gave me a clue I might be good at it. So that’s why I was quite excited to take the test, and I’m glad I did.

Now I’ve probably done the most civilian work of any Super Recognizer in the country, or in fact probably anywhere in the world because we’re leading the way globally. It’s unbelievable. It’s been a rollercoaster!

Now, you’re not just recognizing faces. You also immediately link their appearance to a memory of who they are and how you know them. So it’s memory as well as facial recognition, right?
Yes and this is why we’re really good for things like fast-moving investigations. I don’t have to sit and look for a while, or sit and absorb somebody’s facial features. I can be shown somebody’s face for a couple of seconds and it’s then built into my memory. It’s really spooky and it’s quite cool when it happens.

Are you always accurate?
Yes, I just know 100 percent. You don’t have a situation where you go, “I think that might be matey from my old job”. It’s really solid and definite.

Did you have to do any training once you found out you had the skill?
It’s really rigorous testing. At Super Recognizers International we’re really specific about the standard of people we take on. There are varying levels and we only take on the best of the best. We have a training course, which teaches you about the law and behavior analysis so we can be deployed on covert operations.

What was your first job as a recognizer?
One of the first jobs I had to do was a murder enquiry. Thankfully my huge obsession with true crime has meant that because I knew so much about that kind of thing I could ask the police all sort of relevant questions and do my own mini-investigation. It led to some really good results for them and new evidence in the case. Since then I’ve done three more high-profile murder investigations.

Since I qualified and knew this is what I wanted to head for I got trained in surveillance and now I can go out on covert operations and hold my own. I can use covert radios and follow people, follow vehicles, I can help identify people.

I found myself on the red carpet once at the National Film and TV Awards. I was watching for some YouTubers that had been threatening to storm the stage again—they’d done that before. So there I was at the top of the red carpet watching out for naughty people while surrounded by television and movie stars [laughs]—that was a cool one!

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Do you feel nervous when you’re doing these covert operations?
Not nervous, I feel invigorated, excited and absolutely determined to do the job. We don’t always find people when we’re deployed but I can say that those people have never come past us either. That’s just as good for the venues or events organizers. We cover big gigs at arenas too. The last one I did was Slipknot. We had someone deployed at every entrance of the arena. We scanned thousands of faces and they’re all irrelevant, until that one person comes past and your hairs go up on the back of your neck and you know it’s them.

Who were you looking for at that gig?
We did a joint operation at their Birmingham gig with the local police force and their pickpocket team. We were watching out for known gangs of pickpockets that come into the venues. We had some really good intel from the previous tour and the venues said that the same kind of suspects were targeting the same bands as they go round. We watched all the entrances and we told the venue that not one of the faces came through those doors. Sure enough, at the end of the evening there was not one report of anything lost or stolen and there were no incidents. We were delighted and so was the venue.

Do you work on protests too?
We did the Royal Windsor Horse Show because they’d had an incident where a protestor had gotten close to the Queen in the past. So we had 106 faces and I had a team of six of us. We were deployed at different parts of the entrance and we located eight or nine of the protestors that were trying to get in. One of my colleagues was able to spot one of the faces from the list from about 200 meters down the road. One of my other colleagues said, “There’s number 62!” [laughs] She’d gone to the trouble of remembering all the numbers, which she didn’t need to do, bless her heart.

Do you enjoy it? It sounds like a big game of _Where’s Wally?**_.** Yeah. Sometimes I pinch myself when I’m working. For me, it’s working in the world that I’m fascinated with and know so much about, from the outside. Now to be an insider is a dream come true. It’s just absolutely wonderful, so far, and I’m excited to see it building into the future.

Can you tell us about the most high profile case you’ve worked on?
I worked on a really high profile case that was on national TV. They caught the man that did it at the scene of the murder but they wanted to know how planned it was, whether he had been seen locally and what he’d been up to.

They gave me four days’ worth of CCTV footage from residential premises and streets. They gave me the four 24 hour periods before the murder happened. I asked for some custody footage of him so I could see exactly what he looked like, and a mugshot. Long story short, I found 83 different samples on different cameras. I showed the investigators that yes, he was in the area, and showed where he’d ferried the murder kit from. He’d stashed it locally, which they didn’t know. I found the footage of him bringing it piece by piece and stashing it close to the murder venue. He did this over the course of a few nights. You could link his murder kit to another one they’d found previously because of the details I showed them in the footage. It created a lot more evidence which showed that he deserved an extremely harsh sentence, which he got. That was phenomenal.

What do you know about the science of super recognition? Have you got special powers?
There’s a part of the brain called the fusiform, which is in the frontal lobe, I believe. It’s the part of the brain that recognizes faces—everyone has it—but there’s something weird about my one. It’s something you’re born with and something you can’t learn. It’s a scale. There are people called prosopagnosics who can’t recognize faces whatsoever. That’s how it all came to be discovered. People with face blindness don’t recognize their own face in the mirror, or their mums or their dads. It’s a really awful thing. From that far end of the scale, you have people on the other end and those are the super recognizers.

Are you really good at recognizing emotions in people too?
No, it’s not connected. We have quirks though. For example, I can recognize people from behind as well, the back of their heads. I think I’m recognizing a shape. There are various elements, different super recognizers might say they can tell who somebody is from their jawline. We’re mostly like that, we don’t need to see the full face. We don’t look at the eyes or mouth, we’re taking it all in. That’s why we can spot them in a second, because we see the whole, I think.

Do you have a good memory elsewhere in your life?
Nope [laughs]. It doesn’t seem to be linked. Some of us are bad with names. You don’t find that we have a lot of people with autism being super recognizers, for example. The group I work with are a completely mixed group, all different walks of lives, different skills, quite a lot of creatives in there but not all. All lovely, interesting and different people from different backgrounds, so it doesn’t seem to be linked to any other traits. But there is still scientific research going on.

How does it affect your daily life outside of work? Like, do you recognize everyone you walk past in your town?
It’s quite tough in a shopping mall because you’ll be shopping, as will other people. You might look at someone and then you’ll keep seeing them. You think, “Oh my god, I’m being stalked!” But you’re not, you’re just in the same building. Now that I know what I’m seeing and feeling I’m not as alarmed by it.

Great. Any last stories from your life as a super recognizer?
Before I go, I will say that if any of your readers think they’re like me and might be good at it, they should do the test online. We’ve got an association called the Association of Super Recognisers. The website has got tons of info that will be interesting for them. For anyone that is high scoring, we run courses with ex-DCI Mike Neville, who is fascinating. We are running courses on the 1st and 5th of March 2021. It’s definitely worth a go, if you can.

Interview by Jak Hutchcraft