Total recall

The super recogniser could be the ultimate police weapon to fight crime writes John O’Keeffe.

What’s your earliest memory? Sitting on your father’s knee at four years of age? Attending your second cousin’s confirmation as a kid? Perhaps it is something as mundane as being in a mobile home in Wexford with your parents as a five-year-old with rain pelting outside, while Spot the dog scratched at the caravan door?

Gary Collins, a member of the Met Police in London for over 28 years, probably has some very vivid memories. PC Collins is what is now known as a ‘super-recogniser.’

A 17-year-old was found slumped on the road with fatal stab wounds in his chest. Police Officer Collins was called in to examine CCTV footage of the boy being chased by three figures wearing sports clothes. The station where he was set upon was poorly lit and the attackers were a shadowy blur, their faces largely obscured; most of us would be unable to glean anything from this –but not Gary. He immediately identified two of the figures from memory based on the few facial features he could make out. The third figure also looked familiar. A few days later, he was watching a rap video on his mobile phone and spotted that one of the men in the video was the third figure in the footage. The murder team quickly found and charged the three men Collins had identified – and a woman who had not appeared in the CCTV footage – with murder. In August of last year they were all convicted of murder; Collin’s ID evidence was critical.

Many of us like to believe we have detailed memories. However, if you enjoy telling stories about when you were two, you are probably a well-meaning fantasist, as few of us have any true recollections below the age of four. Freud gave it a name – he called it ‘childhood amnesia’ – in more local parlance, ‘spoofing.’ Although we can make some general observations about the age that most humans have their earliest memories some research suggests that the ability to remember can alter from culture to culture. In a mid-90s study it was shown that groups of Asian origin had memories, on average, six months earlier than their Caucasian cohort. However, Maori New Zealanders, appear to have memories that reach even further back – to as early as two and a half years.

The clue to this variation appears to be in what is known as the ‘social-interaction’ model of early lives. Like all memories, our childhood memories don’t exist in a vacuum and are connected. As children, we ‘encode’ our memories of events as we talk over them with adults in our life.

Even within sub-cultures and countries, differences in early memory can appear. If you have had a ‘high-elaborative’ mother, chances are she talked to you more about what happened in the past and asked you to recount the mundanities of your own daily childhood life. ‘Low-elaborative’ mothers however talk less about the past and ask what are known as closed rather than open-ended questions. If you have had a ‘high-elaborative’ parent, chances are your memory may be more detailed and stretch further back into early childhood and more recently than most. The reality is that we all remember what we need – if a parent emphaises certain times or events to us, it may well fall into this category in our brain.  It would appear that PC Collins might have had a seriously elaborative mother.

Collins advised a British broadsheet recently, however, that it was only when he joined the police service that he began to realise that he had a special gift for facial memory and recognition. He recalls, “stopping people once and remembering them years later.” Even while casually watching Sky News showing looters during the London riots of the summer of 2011, he immediately recognised some people – even cutting his holiday short to go into work to identify the rioters. Over the next six months there were many he simply identified by their eyes. Eventually he was able to name an astonishing 190 people. No one has ever identified so many people in the Metropolitan Police force, yet 90% of these were simply made from his street knowledge and memory.

Our short-term memories are often likened to a scratch pad for the temporary recall of memory – the brain’s ‘post-it note’ if you will. Our brain will typically hold a small amount of information at any given time – generally a maximum of seven items. These will be held in an active ‘ready’ state but only for a short period of maybe 15 seconds. Other memories will of course hit our long-term memory bank and we tend to filter information so that we can ‘discard’ some memories and store others. Collins and others like him tend to assemble things differently.

While it is theorised that literally none of our memories are forgotten as such – just stored in places we can no longer locate – police officers like Gary Collins appear to have no such memory lapses at any point. He is not alone on the front line of fighting crime in London. Indeed, there is now a super-recogniser unit with six full time officers, based in an unassuming grey stone police building in Lambeth in south London – the only one of its kind in the world.

These guys are no slackers. Since it was established, the unit has made 2,250 identifications – or a quarter of all identifications within the Met. The science of police recognition is not exactly astrophysics however and is based on what the team in London call, good old fashioned ‘snapping.’ A description of a person with red hair and freckles for example is inputted into their system. The super-recognisers then go through the images and once they believe that they have seen the same person, they will start to attempt to link them together.

It’s not all glamour for such super-recognisers however and many describe becoming obsessed with their jobs. “I am quite happy going through 20,000 images looking for a distinctive earlobe,” one of the unit has commented. Many gardaí will also recognise another part of the super-recogniser’s life that can become somewhat tedious – they are never off duty and every face potentially has a criminal background. Nor do they always get it right. The human brain is after all not infallible – not even for super-recognisers; many of whom would have little success but for their true partner – CCTV.

There will be many in An Garda Síochána who have good memories for a criminal face and can link moments and times together. Only very few however are likely to have the clarity of total recall to match that of the super-recognisers in Scotland Yard.

For those that do, it might be time to apply for a transfer.

John O’Keeffe is Director, Colleges of Criminology & Psychology at City Colleges Dublin and a Visting Fellow in the Dept. of Neuroscience, Psychology & Behaviour, University of Leicester.


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

subscribe button