Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Dear Readers,

May I draw your attention to chapter 6 of Assessing the Impact of CCTV (2005), a Home Office report into the effectiveness of CCTV?

Written by Prof. Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs, the report is widely held up as "evidence" that CCTV doesn't work.

In Chapter 6, Conclusions: Reflections on the effectiveness of CCTV, the report states:

"It would be easy to conclude from the information presented in this report that CCTV is not effective: the majority of the schemes evaluated did not reduce crime and even where there was a reduction this was mostly not due to CCTV; nor did CCTV schemes make people feel safer, much less change their behaviour. That, however, would be too simplistic a conclusion..."


- Simply measuring crime rates is a poor measure of the effectiveness of CCTV. There are simply too many factors which complicate the analysis, not least the fact that the introduction of CCTV can lead directly to an increase in recorded crime.

- The role of CCTV in high profile cases is lost in overall crime figures, the police say. "The importance of the crime-fighting role that CCTV plays in this
way should not be underestimated."

- The report also, by its own admission, doesn't address the evidential value of CCTV, and police had a generally positive view of CCTV.

The most telling observation of his report is that we are still "learning how to use CCTV".

In my view, CCTV is very much a hit and miss affair at the moment, sometimes achieving tremendous breakthroughs, and other times disappointing the victims, the police, the criminal justice system, the media and the public by its failure to deliver the evidence.

It is shocking that 12 years after pouring significant sums of money into CCTV, the government doesn't have a system in place for counting the number of cameras in the country. What's even more shocking is that in all those years, the previous government failed to introduce a comprehensive system of regulation, so we are left with a piecemeal and not very reassuring patchwork of Data Protection, Regulation of Investigatory Powers, Human Rights and other such Acts to control it.

And the police! Where do I start? The police have failed spectacularly to formulate a comprehensive and strategic approach to the use of CCTV. There are isolated examples of best practice, but in the main it's catch-as-catch-can when it comes to using CCTV.

Investigating police officers are not trained to collect CCTV evidence. When viewing recorded images, many officers (not all, but quite a few) will concentrate on just one camera, ignoring the wealth of evidence that might be captured by neighbouring cameras. And that's in a CCTV control room, where the evidence is presented to them on a plate and there's technical support to guide them through the process; what happens out on the street where they are investigating an assault at a corner shop? Is this lack of curiosity, laziness or ignorance?

There are numerous and isolated examples of good practice within the police forces. Some have specialists to go and "sweep up" CCTV evidence for an investigation. Some units place liaison officers in the control rooms to improve communications and provide value intelligence. Many have given CCTV operators access to Airwave radio, but in some cases this was a long and hard fought battle and I believe there are still a few forces that continue to withhold this vital tool.

I know of only two police forces in the country that have a system for processing images from end to end: from collecting the images, to analysing their contents, to extracting ID shots and identifying the suspects. These are Cheshire Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police, but even the Met's approach covers only a limited number of boroughs.

I know of only two areas in the country where the police or local authority have attempted to count the cameras: Cheshire Constabulary (again!) and Salford. Cheshire revealed recently that in a county of approximately one million people, there are 300 publicly-owned CCTV cameras and 9000 which are privately owned but look over areas to which the public have open access (eg, interior and exterior of shops and petrol stations).

Cheshire Constabulary is notable for its use of CCTV, but then perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the deputy chief constable, Graeme Gerrard, is ACPO's lead on CCTV and a major driver behind the National CCTV Strategy.

Where does that leave CCTV? Despite the hodge-podge approach, CCTV continues to score impressive breakthroughs. In Bradford, CCTV is credited with an arrest after a man was apparently seen on camera killing a woman with a crossbow. Meanwhile on a daily basis, CCTV provides incontrovertible evidence which leads to suspects pleading guilty without the need to go to court. CCTV operators regularly provide police with invaluable evidence, real-time intelligence and visual backup, and there are many commendations issued every year for this assistance.

On the other hand, it comes as no surprise that CCTV is criticised when it fails to deliver the evidence, doesn't have strong partnerships with the police and can't even answer the basic question of how many cameras there are.

Should we condemn the entire enterprise because of this? I leave the final word to Gill and Spriggs: "Perhaps a balanced judgement of the success of any measure – and one that is not often discussed in crime-prevention evaluations – should be reserved for times when the measure is working to its full potential and is installed correctly and in the right place. How useful are lessons about the effectiveness of measures that are still not fully developed? There is no doubt, judging by the information presented here, that this country is still learning how to use CCTV."

There's more to this report, and if you haven't read it, I would urge you to download a copy from the Home Office website.

~Tom Reeve

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