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Police Oracle - The missing link.

28 February 2016

The critical moment for 3rd Forensic and the MPS came with the London riots in August 2011. The MPS team in Operation Withern, set up to co-ordinate investigation of the riots and the crimes involved, was faced with images of more than 5,000 unidentified suspects for crimes of robbery, arson, assaults and attempted murder. If these images and criminal investigations were to be managed effectively, new tools and new technology would be required. The MPS selected FILM to take on those responsibilities. The Operation Withern team reported high rates of identification and detection; and that without FILM the handling of so much crime scene CCTV footage would have been an impossible task. Building on this success, 3rd Forensic and MPS signed a partnership agreement to further develop the software.

Since 2011, the FILM solution, including the core images database, has grown to more than 90,000 images from CCTV, mobile phones and other sources, including custody images related to crimes previously successfully dealt with.

Before the introduction of FILM, sometimes days were spent in cutting and pasting images of criminals to create an edition of a bulletin, Caught on Camera, the MPS’s internally circulated journal of unidentified suspects. With FILM, the process is automated and takes seconds. super recognisers, who have special knowledge of crime types and geographical areas, are now shown versions of Caught on Camera in just minutes, thus enabling pan-London criminals to be identified at an early stage.

The riots also demonstrated to the MPS the effectiveness of using dedicated officers to show suspect images to frontline staff. Using the FILM database, local officers, known as the Area Identification Teams, trebled their results from 50 to 150 per week. Currently, an average of 200 successful identifications occur each week.


One of the most significant developments in the programme of FILM evolution is the co-ordinated use of super recogniser officers, aided by scientific expert Dr Josh Davies and his team at Greenwich University, which specialises in this field. Through scientific personal testing and assessment, the MPS found 150 staff within the force with a greatly heightened natural ability to spot, recognise and remember faces and other distinctive identifying features.  Once identified, selected and trained to play a key part in the overall FILM process, these super recognisers work with the FILM database to optimise cross-linking of crimes and generate the maximum possible number of confirmed suspect identifications.

One of the evolutionary developments for FILM has been the availability of the solution on tablets. Certain officers are now equipped with personal tablet access to FILM. One officer, a prolific super recogniser, regularly uses this means to identify suspects, including in his own time. His identifications include 20 suspects for murder and extremely violent crimes with one of the most notable murder suspect identifications made while he was off duty. This officer was contacted by Senior Investigating Officers to help them with the high-profile investigation. Using FILM-generated images, he quickly identified the suspect within minutes, enabling the case detectives to arrest the individual.

With the proven success of the FILM/super recogniser combination, things moved quickly. Five of the top super recognisers were moved to a central unit, the MPS Central Unit based at New Scotland Yard. With full access to the FILM database, these officers were able to develop new evidential methods to link crimes, identify suspects and bring offenders to justice.

By exploiting FILM and its evolution to an enhanced capability for policing, they developed two new tactics:

Super recognisers search through the database and match the same suspect to several crimes using the metadata and geographical searching elements, in addition to their own natural ability to match faces. For the first time, prolific thieves have been linked to nearly 100 crimes, such as an armed robber to 13 incidents and a burglar to 25 break-ins. Previously, where fingerprint and/or DNA evidence is unavailable, it has rarely been possible to identify habitual criminals by linking their crimes through CCTV evidence. This has now changed. FILM is enabling persistent offenders to be identified much more successfully than ever before, revolutionising investigative use of CCTV imagery.

Super recognisers target and, using recognised police tools, such as criminal intelligence and information, identify gangs of associated criminals – via a new culture of suspect association grouping. This applies where an offence such as robbery or violent disorder involves multiple suspects, or where the prime suspect is accompanied by others who may be involved, or may act in consort with the prime suspect in other crimes. In these cases, the super recognisers will actively seek out and gather images of a number of related or potentially related offences. Where one suspect has been identified and accomplices and associates are known or suspected, the investigators use intelligence databases and their super recogniser abilities to link members of the active group to specific crimes and identify all those involved.

Cross-border crimes

Another major development is the automated transfer of images of unidentified suspects between police forces. It has long been the case that if a suspect leaves finger marks, blood or other body fluids at a crime scene in another force area, the data is shared nationally, but until very recently, this has not been the case for images. Criminals who travelled long distances to commit crimes were more or less immune from detection and capture, as far as CCTV imagery was concerned. Few suspect images were ever circulated from force to force – and even fewer were ever identified on a cross-border basis.

This came to an end when the City of London Police became the second users of FILM via the MPS Central Unit. Images shared between the two forces resulted in the identification of an offender from the MPS area, by a City of London officer. Using the FILM solution, the Met were able to link the suspect to 11 counts of burglary and theft dating from December 2013 and up to February 2015. This criminal was arrested and in September 2015 appeared before Blackfriars Crown Court where she was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. 

Given the successes, it is no surprise that plans are under way for other police forces to join the FILM community, especially when it is estimated that, for example, 40 per cent of crimes in the neighbouring Surrey area are actually committed by criminals travelling out from London area.

Plans are being made to add automated recognition processes for faces, logos and patterns. Some investigators and developers note that automatic facial recognition systems are rarely suitable for use with poor quality, randomly posed CCTV images.  However, the 3rd Forensic team has found that, used in conjunction with FILM, and especially when supported by logo/pattern recognition technology, automatic facial biometric solutions can play a useful role as part of the overall identification tool-kit. It is therefore part of the company’s product development plan.

The potential value of automatic logo or pattern recognition is a very different story.  Even very poor crime scene images often contain distinctive patterns and shapes that could be of great value in large-scale automatic searches, if the right algorithms were available. Then it could be of enormous value in crime clear-up. This has been well understood for many years, but appropriate technology has unfortunately been very slow to emerge. Until recently, automatic logo/pattern detection software was simply insufficiently accurate to be of much value in law enforcement or national security applications. However, the 3rd Forensic team, in association with cutting-edge academic and commercial associates has now identified a ground-breaking video-analytic solution for immediate incorporation into FILM. This will offer investigators extra, faster capabilities for FILM database searching – based on automatic detection of logos and other distinctive patterns, including tattoos.  This will be a world first. Scheduled for operational piloting in early 2016, it is set to deliver unique new capabilities in crime linking and suspect identification via the FILM system.


The absence of suitably structured systems and technologies to make best use of the images gathered from CCTV has greatly hampered investigators in their efforts worldwide. New forensic image management technology developed in the UK now offers the global law enforcement community a step-change improvement in the usefulness of CCTV and other imagery in the fight against crime, disorder and terrorism.

At a time when police budgets are being cut globally, the FILM approach has proved to deliver much more for less. While the number of CCTV identifications in the Metropolitan Police Service of London is comparable to fingerprints and DNA and the identification rate is similar, the most significant fact is that the MPS reports CCTV identification as costing only about one tenth of the cost of the other forensic identifications. The reasons are simple – fingerprints and DNA require hugely expensive resources – whereas CCTV is generally supplied free to the police; and super recognisers found from within the force make critical suspect identifications whilst also continuing with other work on normal duty.

These results are transferable anywhere in the UK and internationally. The success that the London police forces continue to have using FILM is a success that others can achieve. The 3rd Forensic FILM image management solution offers a significant contribution to the operational requirement to identify more suspects; and to the strategic goal of safer communities.

FILM is now available for all law enforcement and national security teams to use to make CCTV the effective tool it was designed to be. Operated by trained teams, including carefully selected super recognisers, FILM makes the use of images truly the third forensic discipline – operated in the same systematic way to ensure the effectiveness of fingerprints and DNA evidence, and at significantly lower cost. l

Jim McBrierty is a divisional director at 3rd Forensic. He was formerly a commander at Lothian and Borders Police and an advisor on national security and policing technologies to the UK Home Office.

This article is available at Police Oracle:


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