Humanoid facial recognition arrives at German police

When pursuing suspected criminals, some state police forces use a special ability of individual officers. Deployments often take place in major events

Police forces are increasingly using so-called super-recognisers. These are people who are particularly good at remembering faces. An estimated one to two percent of all people are said to have this ability, as discovered by British scientist Josh Davis during a study within the Metropolitan Police. There, it was noticed that the same officers were always able to identify a particularly large number of suspects on video footage.

The researcher then helped the police in Munich to set up such a unit; in 2018, 13 policewomen and 14 policemen were selected for this after a multi-stage selection process. One of their first assignments was in the access control area and at the „video workstation“ of the Oktoberfest, which took place in the same year; the comparison was made with images of people who had been denied entry, among other things. Allegedly, in Bavaria they have now helped to solve hundreds of cases.

Since 2018, Baden-Wuerttemberg has also identified several super-recognisers in its own ranks; in June 2020, for example, „a considerable part“ of the suspects identified in investigations into the „Stuttgart riot night“ were due to their abilities. Meanwhile, all prospective police officers at the Baden-Württemberg Police College undergo a corresponding identification procedure.

Even before the official start of the unit, six Bavarian super-recognisers supported the special commission „Black Block“ set up in Hamburg after the G20 summit. The officers searched image material for suspected criminals. Also in London, the super-recognisers were first deployed in 2011 at the G20 summit. One of them is said to have identified 180 suspects from video recordings, whereas a software with facial recognition, which was also used, identified only one person.

Humanoid facial recognition is also supposed to be possible if the picture of the wanted person is an old mugshot or if the person has changed their appearance with a cap, beard, sunglasses or paint. The Bavarian police claim to have successfully demonstrated this when handling environmental protests against the further construction of the A49 in Dannenröder Forst. There, five of their super-recognisers were deployed at the request of the Hessian police. They trained 45 Frankfurt officers who are now also to be deployed for super-recognition. However, there are no plans to set up a separate unit in Hesse.

Image: Police Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.