Photograph by Dan Winters
On a sticky August afternoon in 2011, as rioters looted and fires burned in the streets outside, police officers gathered in a room in North London. Projected on the wall was the blurry silhouette of a man with a black woolen hat pulled deep over his forehead and a red bandanna covering all but his eyes. Security cameras had tracked the man setting fire to cars, stealing from shops, beating up passersby, and even hurling bombs. But he was always masked. “We need to identify this fellow,” the sergeant said. “He’s one of the worst.”
At that moment, Gary Collins, a constable from the local gang unit, walked in. He took one look and said, “That’s Stephen Prince.”
Friends call Collins Rain Man, Yoda, or simply the Oracle. But to Scotland Yard, London’s metropolitan police force, he is known as a super recognizer. He has a special gift of facial recall powers that enables him to match even low-quality and partial imagery to a face he has seen before, on the street or in a database, possibly years earlier. The last time he had come face-to-face with Prince was during a fleeting encounter in 2005.
Soft-spoken, Collins carries a baton and pepper spray but no gun. His weapon is his memory. Facial-recognition software identified one suspect of the 4,000 captured by security cameras during the London riots; Collins identified 180. “Computers are no match for the super recognizers,” said Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the Central Forensic Image Team at Scotland Yard.
With its estimated one million security cameras, London is pioneering a new area of detection, one that could be cheaper than DNA analysis and fingerprinting and relies on human superpowers. Scotland Yard’s team of 152 super recognizers is made up of people who scored at the top end of a facial-recognition test devised at Harvard in 2009. It’s estimated that roughly 1 or 2 percent of us are super recognizers, and Collins has placed in the top 1 percent of that 1 percent.
Surprisingly, super recognizers’ facial recall is rarely matched by photographic memory in other parts of life—Collins, 48, cannot remember a shopping list. As a child, he was oblivious to his ability. “I always recognized people, but as a kid you don’t know you have a gift; you just think everybody is like you.”
It was only when he joined the police in 1995 that he became aware of his talent. The rookie on the beat, he spent hours looking at the worn Polaroid prints of neighborhood villains on the wall. Then, out on patrol for the first time with a senior officer, he’d reel off the names of the people they came across. “How would you know, new boy?” his partner asked him.
An officer sitting with Collins in their office likens his mind to a Rolodex: “You show him a photo; 30 seconds later, the name pops up. And he’s always on the mark.” Once, in the police van after a raid, a gang leader who had been arrested asked, “Who ID’d me? Who is this Gary Collins?” When Collins put up his hand, the gang leader said, “Man, everyone in prison is talking about you.” They still see each other on the street now and again. “He’ll test me on his gang mates: ‘What’s his name?’ he’ll ask,” Collins said. “When I tell them, they cheer and give me a high five.”
Collins lives outside London to avoid running into wanted faces from his beat. (Last year, he cut short an outing to the mall with his sons when he recognized a gaggle of gang members while buying sneakers.) He reckons that his eldest son, 11 years old and soccer obsessed, could be a super recognizer. “He knows football players in countries and teams I haven’t even heard of,” Collins said. “Who knows? He might have the gift.”