How Super-Recognizers Are Helping Police Solve Crimes

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%-2% of the population, and an extraordinary one at that. 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.