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CCTV: a fair and fearless eye witness

Electric Theatre, Guildford
South East Regional CCTV Conference
18 September 2002

Today is about improving our game with CCTV – improving the way we are doing things; updating our equipment; making sure that we are operating within the law; evaluating the performance of our systems; and trying to see what the future holds for this technology. This launches a series of workshops on CCTV across England and Wales.

CCTV is one of the major crime science revolutions of the last decade and one of the early priorities of this Government. Of 150 crime reduction projects funded by the Home Office in the South East, 103 were for CCTV.  In the South East as elsewhere, CCTV took up the vast bulk of crime reduction programme expenditure (£170m nationally).

As a result, most of our principal town centres now have CCTV coverage.  We have come to recognise that as a fact of life.  We feel increasingly reassured by the presence of cameras in the high street.  We prefer parking our car within sight of a camera not least because the risk of it being broken into or stolen is so much less.

We will also hear, and it is part of today’s business, the debate on “whether CCTV works”.  I suspect to most CCTV professionals, that now seems like a funny question.  We have become so used to the value of CCTV in crime reduction. We have seen how it facilitates detections and arrests and, because so many of those detained as the result of CCTV evidence plead guilty, there is a double pay-off for the criminal justice system.  

A CCTV scheme in the South East recently had to take its system out of action for a little time to change its servers.  It took around 48 hours for the offenders to realise that they were no longer being watched, and crime went up.  And it was for those offenders a disastrous 48 hours before they realised that they were being watched once more and crime came back down.

I think there is nevertheless an issue about effectiveness.  Firstly, for me, the question whether CCTV works or not is a bit like whether computers work or not.  If we did research on that, we might well come up with some mixed answers. We would find many, perhaps most, performing adequately: falling over from time to time and being irritating, but functioning nevertheless.  We would find some neglected or abandoned systems and assigned, in the case of computers literally, to the attic.  And we would find some computers doing an absolutely smashing job, adored and relied on by those who were working with them.

That seems to me to be a better way to look at it.  There are some, perhaps most, CCTV schemes which are working perfectly satisfactorily and doing a reasonable job.  A small minority are pretty poor.  But there are some schemes which are making a terrific contribution to crime reduction.  One topical example might be the way Reading has improved its CCTV procedures as part and parcel of its successful response to street crime.  

The second issue is that it is currently quite difficult to judge objectively which CCTV schemes are performing well and which are not. This is important because only if we can evaluate CCTV performance for ourselves, can we have a standard against which we can improve.

And, in the meantime, everything moves on.  What was fine last year isn’t necessarily good enough today.  I am so often impressed by the sheer skill of our best CCTV operators in moving cameras, changing between cameras, watching so many screens.  Their skill contributes so much to the capability of a CCTV system.

The technology is also improving: the change from analogue to digital (in spite of not yet having an agreed digital standard), the increasingly high resolution cameras, the ability to store and replay images which are good enough for evidential use in court, portable and mobile cameras and of course automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR).  The overall performance of a system will depend on the extent to which these enhancements are exploited to the full.

But probably the latest change, which has certainly started but with which we have a lot further to go, is in making the CCTV operation fully intelligence-based.  The adoption by police forces of the National Intelligence Model and intelligence-led policing has transformed their work.  It is only just beginning to transform the work of CCTV systems.

I will give one simple example.  Experience with ANPR has taught us that, if we can get the number of a stolen car into the ANPR system within a matter of minutes, we stand a good chance of stopping the vehicle before it has left the area. If it takes a day, we don’t.  That should not surprise us.  Some people are finding exactly the same effect with street robbers.  If the CCTV control gets the descriptions of street robbers at once, we’ll catch them quickly.  If the control room is told the next day, we are not going to do so well.  It’s a simple as that.

Working with ANPR has also underlined the need for a close relationship between the control room and officers and wardens outside.  Exactly the same is true for CCTV.  We are already seeing close working between neighbourhood and street wardens and CCTV, matching the closer working between police officers and CCTV and retailers and CCTV in Shopwatch schemes.  Getting these relationships right is an important element of effectiveness.

What are the CCTV developments which I see on the horizon?  I have set out some of these in my Business Priorities which is on GOSE’s crime reduction website. I will give here a few headings.

I have already mentioned automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR).  This could well transform our handling of the motoring offender – or, should I say, the offender who is motoring?  For ANPR to work, you need cameras with a good view of key roads, so you have to plan in advance about the siting of cameras or get a link to existing traffic cameras, if the resolution is good enough.  You need also an active, safe intercept.  The police in Milton Keynes are implementing an innovative ANPR project which prevents offenders from being able to steal fuel from petrol stations.  That simply stops the offences.

CCTV links to other systems are also important.  We have become used to getting good feeds from shopping centre systems. I doubt if we are as good at getting feeds from railway stations.  Yet the 1997 British Crime Survey tells us that nearly a third (29%) of all muggings take place in or around transport systems like railway, coach and bus stations.

Portable and mobile systems are also developing fast. In portable systems you can move the location of a camera around providing it keeps within range of its parent transmitter/receiver.  These may become a standard way of covering some rural areas. Guildford town centre, for instance, is well covered by fixed cameras but we are just installing a set of portable cameras to give coverage over the rural part of the borough.

By comparison, mobile CCTV, where the CCTV system is in a van, is more in its infancy. In the South East, Thanet was one of the pioneers with one of the first mobile CCTV vehicles, along with Dartford and Gravesham.  Some of the later examples, like Westminster’s for instance, have more or better gear on them, but they are essentially the same.  An interesting feature of Thanet’s vehicle is that it includes – as will many of the latest vehicles – an integral ANPR, purchased recently with Communities against Drugs funding. The South East will soon see mobile CCTV vehicles in Hastings, Milton Keynes and, as part of the street crime initiative, in Thames Valley generally.

To finish I should return to the intelligence-led theme.  Many of the better schemes are using their CCTV for town centre management and the control of Anti-Social Behaviour. Pubwatch, shopwatch and clubwatch fits into this. This is a natural development which locates the CCTV system where it should properly be – right in the heart of the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership.

CCTV is, in my view, proving its worth as that most valuable commodity for a criminal justice system – a fair and fearless eye witness.  Fairness and fearlessness is what the public expects. Public safety so often depends on it.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Crime Reduction Director, Government Office for the South East