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Britain's CCTV Surveilled

Research into the effectiveness of Britain's widespread closed circuit television camera (CCTV) network recently put Martin Gill, a criminology professor at the University of Leicester and co-editor of the ASIS-affiliated Security Journal, face-to-face with 10 murderers and more than 80 thieves, burglars, and fraudsters. His findings were not what the government wanted to hear: "I told them there were big problems with CCTV."

Video surveillance is more prevalent in Britain than in any other country. There are more than four million CCTV cameras throughout the country, or about one for every 14 people. They are scattered around airports, train and metro stations, city centers, streets, and businesses. The government has pumped more than $300 million over the last eight years into the network, which was initially spurred by the Irish Republican Army attacks and further impelled by the threat of international terrorism since 9-11.

Gill, director of Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International Ltd, a company that researches crime and security management, led a four-year nationwide project that scrutinized 14 separate CCTV systems installed in town and city centers, car parks, hospitals, and residential areas. Police recorded crime statistics in the areas before and after CCTV was installed, and conducted public attitude surveys.

In all, the firm interviewed more than 300 people and observed over 450 hours of CCTV operations. "Our results said that out of the 14 areas where they put CCTV, only one showed a reduction in crime that was due to CCTV," Gill told his audience at the ASIS International Middle East Security Conference & Exhibition 2006 in Bahrain.

To find out why the system wasn't effective, Gill grilled thieves and found they generally dismissed CCTV as a weak weapon against crime. Criminals said the cameras could be skirted using simple disguises including hats, scarves, and hoods. Furthermore, they said their awareness of CCTV's presence meant they took precautions to avoid detection by the probing lenses.

The thieves also said the images wrought by the cameras could be challenged as evidence because they were often hazy.

"Most of the time, the thieves said, CCTV was not a big problem, but some of the time the image was good," said Gill.

The murderers he interviewed also said CCTV surveillance would not have swayed them from committing their crimes because they were out of control on alcohol or drugs, or were simply in a rage.

Ideally, the cameras would be part of a larger program in which an incident would be spotted and reported to the police by a vigilant operator, resulting in arrests. Gill found this scenario a pipe dream due to overall mismanagement of the surveillance systems.

In some locations, too many cameras were installed, making it impossible to watch them all simultaneously and continuously. In other locales, there were too few units to give complete coverage of a particular zone.

Camera positioning was also at fault. One camera location assessment was conducted during the winter months, when the trees had no leaves. When summertime came, the cameras's views were obscured by blossomed branches.

Other problems arose from use of inadequate equipment, or from lights placed to illuminate nighttime images that instead blinded the cameras with glare. Overall, only half of the CCTV systems studied had a structured procedure to determine the positioning of cameras. Many erroneous placements were chalked up to over-reliance on technical managers to the exclusion of other parties, namely police.

Another problem: operators charged with monitoring the cameras were found in several cases to ignore their work. "They were sometimes lowly paid and more intent on reading the newspaper than monitoring the cameras," said Gill.

At other times, the problem was that no operator was present. About half of the 13 CCTV control rooms were staffed fewer than 24 hours per day.

Public opinion interviews revealed that citizens, while not initially opposed to the surveillance installations, were disappointed with their results. "They said it didn't make as much difference as they thought it would," said Gill.

Gill cited mismanagement as the cause. "CCTV can be a very effective tool in the fight against crime - but it needs to be managed properly."