If used properly and proportionately, CCTV can be a vital deterrent to criminals

I did intend to write a less controversial article after my previous contribution attracted far more attention and comments than I expected it to. Knowing that what I’m writing about now falls onto a similar strand of sensitivity, I expect I’ll fail miserably.

When I arrived at Surrey in 2002 to study, we were told it was the safest county in the country. Indeed, this was one of the attractions of studying there, as well as the very beautiful and leafy campus in one of the most unspoilt but bustling southern towns in the country. However, the A3 ran through the town, separating the university from the largest area of student housing, the only supermarket and the hospital. Needless to say, students had no choice but to use the pedestrian subway that went underneath it. In spite of Guildford being one of the safest places in the country to live, this underpass had developed notoriety over the years as being the location of choice for attackers. It was concealed and went under the A3 at an angle making it considerably long; the lighting was poor and the paintwork was so blackened the entire tunnel was dingy and sinister.

In my first year at uni I got involved in the campaign to install proper lighting and CCTV: Lights, Camera, Action!. It was at this point that I came to learn of the work our local MP, Sue Doughty, was doing to help this campaign. Sue clearly displayed the vital elements of a local hard-working MP and, as a then party-apathetic individual, even I was impressed at her assiduous common-sense selfless approach to an issue that concerned pretty much every student at Surrey.

The campaign was initially successful to an extent. The underpass was repainted and new more-powerful lights were fitted. So the Lights section was fulfilled, arguably the Action! bit partly was too, but still no camera. Successive sabbatical officers at the University of Surrey Students’ Union took part in relentless verbal jousting sessions with Guildford Borough Council to try and acquire funding for CCTV. After four years funding had still not been allocated. In late 2006 I was selected as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the university ward to try and take back a seat we lost to the Tories in 2003. I knew exactly what I had to do: I didn’t bother creating an extensive list of policies we might fulfil, I simply promised one. I promised the students in our election manifesto that, come what may, if elected I will fight with everything I have to get CCTV installed in that subway.

The campaign captivated people. In an election where I expected to lose, instead I became the first ever former-student at Surrey to represent the university population in the council chamber, elected with a majority of 166 and taking a seat from the Conservatives in the process.

The next few months were the most emotional and difficult of my tenure as a councillor up till now. At my first full council meeting I asked for the cameras and the Tories said no. The feeble argument given was that the police specify priorities for CCTV, and they need the data to justify it. Data, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, equates to crime figures. I told the Tories I would rather prevent the crime figures. The Conservatives quite adamantly insisted that CCTV does not prevent crime, which is not true and I’ll explain why later. Unfortunately, after I asked that question to council a series of sexual attacks on women occurred in the subway. In the end, after a massive Facebook campaign backed by 2,000 students, good media coverage and relentless pressure placed on the Tory administration, the Conservatives caved in and the local Liberal Democrats, thanks to the help of thousands of students, ended a five-year long safety campaign.

I mentioned the Tory argument that CCTV does not cut crime. However, not only was the person who committed regular sexual attacks in the area eventually caught on CCTV, but a Freedom of Information request sent by me to the police a year ago showed that, since the installation of the CCTV, crime in the vicinity of the subway had reduced by 93%. The Tories did not listen to my argument that criminals who attack in underpasses do so because of the concealment factor – they do not want to be seen. If there is a risk they will be seen, by present eyes or by a camera, the appeal for assault will disappear. For those people, particularly student nurses who had to use the underpass at dark to get to their shifts at the hospital, the fear of crime reduced. The students’ union very kindly awarded me honorary membership for my work on that campaign and other things.

I am ardently against the database state. But video image data is not as indexable as normalised numeric representations of things like DNA or the unique points on your fingerprint. As somebody who studied for a degree in Computing and specialised in artificial intelligence, it is a widely accepted fact that image-processing is not perfect, and it is certainly not possible to have a central computer that keeps an eye on every CCTV camera all the time, matching your face precisely to a record in a central database. We need restrictions on what happens to CCTV data – simply insist that it is captured locally and destroyed within two weeks. This will give people the peace of mind that their liberties are being defended, but if they do find themselves in the frightening situation that many people did in the Guildford A3 underpass, immediate evidence will be available that could be retained for a criminal investigation.

Biometric ID cards and the ID register are dangerous because they are precise and it takes little processing on a computer system to link your details to where they have been accessed, effectively creating an audit trail. Video image data is far too complex to do this without immense difficulty and astronomical cost. Look at successive government IT projects – they can’t even get a basic static database right, never mind complex machine-learning image-processing projects.

Anything that captures your activities has the potential to step on your basic civil liberties. The country does not need anywhere near the number of CCTV cameras that it currently has, and in many places the locations these cameras are situated mean that they do not prevent crime. But with the right restrictions and with sensible deployment, CCTV can be an invaluable tool in making certain parts of our towns safer. Those who are entirely opposed to CCTV need only see the benefits we have found in Guildford.

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  • I couldn’t disagree more. The answer to crime in dark underpasses is not to build urban environments that force people to use dark underpasses. Remote officials in control rooms are useless and just another example of how the supposed law enforcement system has cut itself off from the population.

    Vast amounts of money have been spent on CCTV. It’s been the swindle of two centuries. We need to get rid of it.

  • I wouldn’t call a 93% reduction in crime a swindle.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Sep '09 - 9:35pm

    Ack, you’re making a common mistake. The headline “CCTV does not cut crime” is too abbreviated a version of the research. Here’s a more accurate one: “CCTV does not prevent crime from happening, it just moves it to a place where the cameras are not”.

    You have generated the expected effect by adding cameras to a hotspot. This can sometimes have political value (shifting crime into somebody else’s constituency – I have no doubt that the university students are quite happy with this result), but is unlikely to have reduced the crime figures in the county – just those in that one spot. Unfortunately this isn’t something we can prove, since the change in that one underpass will be too insignificant to show up in the county crime figures anyway, but in larger initiatives like the London cameras, it’s quite obvious: crime in front of cameras is way down, crime in the city is unchanged.

  • the real "eastender" 1st Sep '09 - 11:01pm

    As an aside, if you stand in the tesco end of that subway and clap your hands you get an extremely weird echo effect.

  • Martin Kinsella 2nd Sep '09 - 8:15am

    The 93% reduction in crime figure is misleading as it only applies to this subway. We do not know if the crime moved elsewhere.

    CCTV is a reactive measure and does not tackle the causes of crime. It simply moves it away to somewhere else. The only way CCTV will be succesful in reducing crime is if we have it everywhere and that is hopefully never going to happen.

    I also find it surprising that we were out there trying to out-Tory the Tories which is what the original campaign too be elected was about as law and order/cctv was the only issue.

    So yes it is a controversial column, of course it is, I am sure that was the intention. However as a solution to law and order problems it does nothing of any concrete use.

  • We do know if the crime was cut, because one of the people causing a good percentage of the attacks (who would have been caught on CCTV initially if it was actually there) was eventually caught on CCTV, tried and convicted.

    I understand the argument that CCTV can move crime elsewhere rather than remove it entirely and I don’t entirely disagree where the crime in the area simply stops and nobody has been caught, but the focus of my article is that CCTV acts as a deterrent in some cases, which is true. There are some places in towns where crime goes on and those places can be avoided – it’s not an ideal solution, but it’s better than having a focal point for attacks as a subway that acts as an artery from one side of the town to the other. People could not avoid using that underpass, so removing both the crime element and the fear of crime from it was generally a good thing. As I previously mentioned, the perpetrator of a vast number of sexual assaults in the area was eventually caught on CCTV, so yes, it did cut crime by removing him from the equation. I’m not calling CCTV the magical solution to crime, I’m simply saying it is a deterrent that can help.

    Martin, to these students the underpass was the main issue. Guildford is, usually, a very safe place to live. Nurses had to do late shifts and were terrified of using the underpass, some even tried crossing the A3 instead which is ludicrous to anybody who knows the road. I don’t agree that to pursue law/order issues is to be Tory. The article wasn’t intentionally controversial – I acknowledge that there are a vast majority of cases in the country where the deployment and usage of CCTV is inappropriate and does not help. In this case, it did help, the guy was caught and convicted, and people can use this underpass with a substantially smaller fear of attack.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Sep '09 - 12:32pm

    Chris – I am sure you were right in what you did. It is about horses for courses, isn’t it? When I was a councillor for the high-rise Aylesbury Estate in Southwark my Lib Dem colleagues and I fought for CCTV after a crime survey we conducted which uncovered a catalogue of serious crime, including non-fatal knife injuries, which had not been reported to the police. It would have been far better to design out crime with a revamp of the estate but CCTV in the lifts was at least something. Now, however, I live in leafy East Hampshire and despair at the way the Lib Dem councillors for my sleepy market town are obsessed with installing CCTV in a place with one of the lowest crime rates in the country – just to prove they are ‘doing’ something.

  • This campaign has a lunacy value. Why not build a bridge? There were huge levels of crime in Birmingham in the nineties, propagated in the vast underground tunnels created by the elevated ring road. How’d they make it safe? Getting rid of the tunnels. Has the added bonus of not getting in the way of Lib Dem policy.

  • Shilpa, Lib Dem policy is not to oppose CCTV in every form. I’ve mentioned a bridge before, but as the underpass was below a residential estate it would never have passed the planning committee. The CCTV has reduced crime in the area of the underpass by 93%… that isn’t lunacy, it’s common sense.

  • I’d hesitate to say that one example proves the assertion, and I have similar issues with the use of ”evidence” as articulated above. I would add that there is little to demonstrate that the use of CCTV was responsible for any reduction in crime, what other initiatives went on, what chages to the environment, or population happened during the period.

    I would agree that in principle targetted and specific use of CCTV can contribute, although I would agree with the point above that environmental design should be used to reduce the risk therefore mitigating for the need to deploy a system. That said I’m unconvinced by the ”deterrent effect” argument, it has the potential to support prosecution but a more proactive and present policing effort would probably yield a greater return.

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