'New Yorker': The Detectives Who Never Forget A Face
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Scotland Yard has a tiny unit of detectives with an unusual talent. They're super-recognizers, people who never forget a face. Patrick Radden Keefe spent time with them for the current issue of The New Yorker. He writes, these officers spend their days trying to identify the people caught committing crimes on the million or so CCTV cameras that film nearly every inch of London.
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: It is, at this point, kind of the global capital of that type of surveillance. Boris Johnson, who used to be the mayor of London and is now Britain's foreign secretary, actually joked a couple of years ago. He said, when you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star. You have no idea how many cameras are filming you.
Part of the reason they put up all these cameras is they thought it would deter crime. And that turned out, after the fact, to be wrong. The problem is that they're unable to identify the people on the footage. And so that's where this unit came from, was there were a handful of cops at Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police who seemed to be especially good at looking at grainy CCTV footage and saying, I know that guy. I arrested him six years ago.
MONTAGNE: What are they working with beyond, say, mug shots or the chance that they'd run into them at the police station?
KEEFE: It's primarily mugshots and the chance they ran into them at the police stations. They now have a database with images of unidentified people committing crimes in London. And there are over 100,000 images in this database. And so part of what the super-recognizers do is they comb through this database and they cross-reference it with a separate database of identified people who've been brought in and arrested.
MONTAGNE: So instead of good, you know, detective legwork, putting together this and this and this bit of evidence and bit of intuition - and then in some instances they can hit it?
KEEFE: Yes, yeah. And I should say, a lot of the time they don't. They have a list of what they call prolific unknowns. And these are people who've actually committed a whole bunch of different crimes all caught on camera. They have the images of the people, but they don't know who they are. And it's this kind of almost a taunt. And they all look up at this list every day and try and piece together who some of these perpetrators are.
MONTAGNE: So they've got these people in their - their bank of recognition. And if they're ever picked up for something else or in some sense they come across them, they would know them?
KEEFE: Right, and because one of the strange features of this special gift is that you can often remember for years and years, a lot of them make arrests off-duty. They'll be out with friends on a Saturday night in some crowded - you know, coming out of a bar with thousands of people on the street. And suddenly, they'll just lock on to somebody in the distance in the crowd and just bolt off running and go and arrest them. There's one guy in the unit who some weeks makes as many as five arrests off-duty.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, you're right about him. His name's James Rabbett, and...
KEEFE: That is a very appropriate name.
MONTAGNE: (Laughter) And apparently it sort of is - wreaks havoc on his social life. But you do say one instance where he was out, spotted a guy he'd glanced at a poster about a year earlier. And it was a jewel thief, and he end up running after him.
KEEFE: Yeah, and that's a good example, right? It's not that he ever actually encountered that man in the flesh, nor did he spend weeks and weeks trying to find the guy. He had just, in passing, seen a wanted poster more than a year earlier. And then he was out one night and saw a guy and just knew it was the guy from the poster a year before, chased him down, arrested him. And sure enough it was. The guy pled guilty.
MONTAGNE: Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker, thank you very much for joining us.
KEEFE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.