After a bit of a lull, London's had a busy couple of weeks for rowdy mass street gatherings. Halloween saw huge crowds descend on a building in Lambeth for an illegal rave, and last Thursday thousands of people in masks tried to change the world by setting some flares off in Westminster.
If you saw the police response to either, you'll have noticed the officers up the front getting to know everyone with their batons. However, once everyone's gone home and night has turned to day, another group of police will be put to work – those who can identify someone purely by his nose, or from his distinctive lope as he makes his getaway. No gadgets, no state-of-the-art drone technology, just a room full of men and women whose memory for facts and faces would make them lethal at a pub quiz.
These officers – "super recognisers" (SRs), as they're known in the Met police force – are increasingly being used to crack the toughest crimes, from a single cold case murder to policing problematic events or clearing up arrest warrants from a riot.
In a nondescript room at New Scotland Yard, a small team will be staring hard at screens of images – snapshots of faces covered by hoods, noses peaking over scarves and glimpses of tattoos appearing under shirts – all taken during the two disturbances to have hit London in the past 10 days. Full-time officers with a special skill for memorising faces they barely know, they'll be trawling through to see if any details spark a recognition of a previous offender; very often they only need a tiny part of someone's face to get a successful conviction.
The Million Mask March in Westminster was supposed to go off peacefully – as was the Scumoween rave in Lambeth – but after factions from each event got a bit out of hand, police will have collected all the CCTV and online footage that focused on the affected areas for study. From there, the net will start to close, especially if any of those captured in photos or videos have been nabbed before. The Met police make 250,000 arrests each year, but with many being repeat offenders (500,000 crimes per year in the UK are committed by re-offenders) the same characters turn up again and again. Across London's 32 boroughs, many might evade capture if they took their crimes across town, but now – with a collected group of memory officers analysing faces – they soon get pulled in.
Super Recogniser Co-ordinator Paul Smith of the Central Forensics Team says these memory cops are vital to police work. "These guys can spot a crook even on the grainiest CCTV footage, recognising a suspect just by their gait, a glimpse of their eyes above a scarf. Anything," he tells me. "We can then do the police work to double check they were there and get them prosecuted. I've seen a super recogniser recall an offender's date of birth, cell number and cohorts just from a glimpse of a CCTV image."
At big crowd events like protest marches or Notting Hill Carnival, with the help of CCTV, these SRs can identify 170 suspects a week in the capital. Even on individual high profile cases – such as the Alice Gross murder in west London – the super recognisers can make the breakthrough. Despite there being some 600 officers used in the original search for the missing schoolgirl, it was only a team of super recognisers exhaustively studying CCTV footage that not only located her body, but also drew attention to prime suspect Arnis Zalkalns.
Any suspect who has been arrested by a super recogniser will have had more than their fingerprints taken. Smith says, "It's a very intimate thing arresting someone. An officer might have to detain someone in the street and hold them there, take them back in the van to the cells. They interview them, keeping eye contact seeing if they're lying. These super cops will remember every detail – if they see them again, they'll know."
The success of the super recogniser cell was born out of the London riots of 2011, which damaged 48,000 businesses across London. The Met had hours of CCTV footage depicting offences being committed, but no way of identifying who those committing the offences were. A summit of the Met's best memory men were called to mop up hundreds of suspects. Police chiefs initially hoped they might single out a few dozen outstanding warrants, but what happened was extraordinary: hundreds of cases were solved in one fell swoop. One officer, PC Gary Collins, used his 20 years experience working with gangs in Hackney to make 180 identifications after the riots.
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But the job isn't as simple as seeing a face and having a moment of instant recognition; it can often require studying reels of film for hours, says PC Collins: "I had watched hundreds of hours of the riot footage but there was one guy we couldn't get. It's hard enough anyway, as nearly all the riot footage was [taken] at night, the CCTV footage was grainy and there are people in the way. He had a bandana over his face and was wanted for robbery, vandalism, all sorts. He also committed a violent assault on a passerby. Very often a crook will keep the scarf over their face, but then, after the crime, take it off and you get a view of their face. This guy didn't."
After studying the film, PC Collins finally caught his man, Stephen Prince, a 23-year-old from Hackney who was jailed for six and a half years for a number of offences, including assault, burglary, arson and theft. "It took weeks of watching tapes," says PC Collins. "We'd get a bit of an eye, then his nose, cheekbones. Then he'd get his mobile phone out and that'd be another piece of the puzzle. We'd study his build, clothes. Finally, I cracked it. I finally got a picture of what he looked like and we could bring him in. I was really proud of that – we'd worked so hard to get him and we caught him a whole year after he thought he'd escaped."
Others soon followed, despite thinking they'd escaped. Joel Lettmann, 24, and Huseyin Onel, 20, were also nabbed months after their role in the riots for multiple burglaries and violent disorder, respectively. "It's very satisfying. These crooks think they've got away and then suddenly they get a knock on their door and they're hauled in," says PC Collins.
Super recognisers have also been used preventatively in London, fishing troublemakers out of crowds before then can do any damage. In October of 2013, pickpockets lifted 140 phones from an Arctic Monkeys gig in just one night. Police were led to believe a professional pickpocket gang were deliberately targeting Monkeys gigs as fans wouldn't be suspecting people that knocked into them mid-song. When the band rolled into Earls Court a few weeks later, the Met carried out a sting that scooped up dozens of known pickpockets before they entered the site. That night, there were only a handful of thefts reported.
Bizarrely, there is one major gap in the super recognisers knowledge: ethnicity. DCI Mick Neville of the Central Forensics Team says that – even if it isn't a politically correct statement – human beings are better at identifying their own race than they are others. "It's backed by science that we do need more ethnic officers to help us have a broader range [when] identifying different suspects," he says, adding: "Super recognisers are providing a vital service not only in catching offenders but also in totting up all their offences – we can now pinpoint offenders for multiple crimes rather than just a few."
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