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Super recognisers and LFR technology can work in tandem

DI Tina Wallace discussed TVP's proactive and reactive use of super recognisers during a recent media day at the force's Sulhamstead training centre.

The Detective Inspector who manages Thames Valley’s 20 super recognisers is excited by the potential of a group still very much in its infancy.

DI Tina Wallace, who also works on the night-time economy operation Project Vigilant, told Police Oracle that Thames Valley Police (TVP) operationalised a technique first explored by the Met back in 2011.

Super recognisers, individuals who have an innate ability to recognise faces from grainy CCTV images, were first deployed for identifying suspects during the London riots 12 years ago.

In 2015 the Met created the first dedicated super recognisers unit, though the MPS elects not to use that term. The Central Image Investigation Unit has been home to the prolific PC Steve Vella, who as of September 2021 was responsible for more than 18% of its total identifications.

For TVP the use of super recognisers began in 2020, though has been ratcheted up in the last year after DI Wallace went on a recruitment drive to find people with the same abilities. 

She put out an “interesting, fun advert” to see who wanted to be assessed, and after a series of tests was able to call on 17 super recognisers and three super matchers.

DI Wallace explains how this group became operationally ready.

“They do a four-day course, which teaches them about the legislation, [including] data protection, about the law, about how you can operationalise this amazing talent…and then we go and put it into practice,” she told Police Oracle.

Two individuals were enlisted to help with this process. One is Mike Neville, the CEO of Super Recognisers International who set up the Met’s dedicated unit eight years ago.

Professor Josh Davis from the University of Greenwich is the other. According to DI Wallace, he has “done all the scientific testing on this, so we know we can back it up with empirical research”.

The next question is how super recognisers - who combine this role with their day job - are deployed within TVP.

DI Wallace says the force's use of this group is two-fold. While super recognisers are used reactively to support investigations, they are also deployed proactively within particular operations or at certain public events.

An example of the former would be a person in custody disputing an identification against a CCTV image. Any officer dealing with such a dispute can email the super recogniser cadre to be assisted by one of the 20-strong cohort.

Since February this year, TVP's super recognisers have supported 47 separate investigations by making identifications in a reactive fashion.

Proactive deployment can be seen in Project Vigilant. The importance of this is reflected in one of the Op’s key findings, namely that 40% of those stopped have some form of previous sexual offending history.

DI Wallace explains: “We know through our data that we’ve got the same men coming into the night-time economy – but they don’t just stay in that one night-time economy, they move, so our super recognisers are able to be given thumbnails of these individuals because we’ve already stopped them previously.”

Though undeniably an asset, super recognisers are not expert witnesses - a status the DI is comfortable with.

“They’ve been scientifically tested and they’ve done a week’s course, so that can’t make them an expert. They’ve got this amazing talent that we’ve operationalised, so I would never expect them to be considered as expert witnesses.”

While super recogniser testimony holds the same evidential weight as that of any other non-expert witness, efforts have been made to build up a rapport with the CPS,

She said: “We’ve got to a stage at Thames Valley where we’ll engage with CPS at the earliest opportunity, and if CPS agree to accept their statement then we’ll go with it…so it’s all about that early engagement."

DI Wallace is still ironing out how best to measure super recognisers' performance. This is due to the group still being in its infancy; it has received a relatively low number of requests so far at around 100,

Because every super recogniser is responsible for keeping a job log, the DI can say with certainty that they've responded to every single request for support. 

However, the process needs further fine tuning, and discussions have been held regarding having "some sort of performance tracker”.

DI Wallace says: “I want to be able to start gathering that data, because through that we’ll be able to show the Chief – ultimately, we need to be able to say to the Chief, ‘you’ve invested well...and this is what we’re doing with it’ – because that’s ultimately what he wants to know.”

Expanding the use of super recognisers could include combining the  human capability with technology.

While live facial recognition is not currently used by TVP, DI Wallace believes this technology could “absolutely, 100%” work in tandem with the force’s super recognisers.

“The Chief knows how I feel about this. I think technology is wonderful. The fact that we’re [policing] low on resources, even though we’ve got 20,000 more officers…at some stage we need to embrace technology better.

“Because otherwise we’re going to sink under demand eventually, [though] we’re doing okay at the moment. I love technology, and I love what it can bring.”

Though clear that TVP can’t rely only on technology, DI Wallace has been inspired by the work of another force which has embraced live facial recognition.

“I’ve been following South Wales Police, and what they’ve done has been superb…yes they’ve obviously had the Bridges vs South Wales [court case], but they’ve come out the other side and they use facial recognition in a really positive way.

“I would personally love to use [live] facial recognition for Project Vigilant…targeting perpetrators of sexual violence against women in the night-time economy and public spaces. But we can’t rely on the technology…we’d still need the human verifier i.e. the super recogniser.”

In terms of the here and now, DI Wallace is pleased with how TVP has built its super recogniser capability.

“People keep saying we’re the leading force on this; we started it three years back. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’re in this space now where we’re like, ‘we’ve got this’.

“The more we use this, and the more that the evidence is accepted by CPS – and the more support we can give – then I think that’s going to generate more interest."

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