Super recognizers

Many years ago, a young woman who was part of a team selling encyclopedias in my area was found murdered, her body discarded in a ditch. She’d been sexually violated and leads were slim. The case was resolved when an older detective, who’d spent...


Many years ago, a young woman who was part of a team selling encyclopedias in my area was found murdered, her body discarded in a ditch. She’d been sexually violated and leads were slim. The case was resolved when an older detective, who’d spent most of his adult life on the force, recalled a peeping case he’d worked involving a man in the general area where the woman’s body was found.

When the man’s condo was searched, techs found plenty of evidence pointing to his guilt as the killer: Walls that had been washed clean of blood spatters, a dog whose hairs matched the hair on the victim’s clothes and strands of her hair in the condo, among them. But the most interesting aspect of the case wasn’t that it was solved or even that the evidence was incontrovertible. It was the human factor that led to the resolution of the case.
A sergeant I worked for in criminal investigations once told me that, in his opinion, evidence didn’t solve crimes, people did. What he meant by that was that it takes investigators and officers who pay attention to the details to make the right connections. He was right. Although evidence helped convict the killer of the girl mentioned above, it took a human being to put the pieces together in the first place.
This, of course, flies in the face of all of the modern technology we see, both being wheeled out in real time in police agencies and on television shows like NCIS and CSI. I don’t mean to denigrate the role technology plays in modern police work: It’s the wave of the future. But neither should the rise of useful tech negate the positive effect that paying attention and simple good policing has on crime solving.
A recent story about an elite group of police officers in one of the world’s largest cities, London, once again reminded me of the power of the human element. According to the widely reported piece, London police are using an elite squad of about 200 officers known as “super recognizers.”
Super recognizers are officers with the proven ability to see and retain the memories of the individuals they encounter, even if that encounter is brief and the individual has changed over time. That means that basically they are walking, talking, breathing facial recognition programs.
The London police placed 17 of those super recognizers in a room running surveillance footage during a large and widely-attended street carnival after giving them images of known criminal and gang members to study. They were able to point out criminals that could, possibly, cause problems at the gathering and station police in the area to discourage thefts and assaults. One officer saw what he believed to be a drug deal, which resulted in a subsequent arrest.
I’m not implying that police should abandon the use of technology. I’m saying that, in the rush to employ newer and better tech, we sometimes forget that the old-fashioned method of good police work, combined with the surprising skillsets some people bring to this line of work, can act in concert with it to make crime-fighting not only better, but more efficient.
Police managers should scour their agencies for people skills. That’s also an important nod to the growing lack of funds agencies have to invest in new technology, because good investigatory skills (and other talents) can elevate their agencies without big monetary investments. So, the question of “How do you improve your agency in hard financial times?” can be answered with a simple phrase: People power.
Put innate skills to work in your own backyard—who knows what you’ll uncover.  ¦

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