“You can’t just stick up cameras and expect everything to change for the better.”
“I think there is often a tendency in security technology procurement – and military procurement too – where the thinking starts with, ‘we’ve got this amazing new technology, what can we use it for?’. And certainly in the early days, people were commenting upon CCTV as ‘a cure looking for an illness’. Instead, I think we’ve got to begin with an effective problem analysis. What problems are our priorities and how can we go about solving them?” Being interviewed is Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton (UK), Peter Squires. “As far as CCTV goes, I think the introduction of it in town centres was very much influenced by major retail, banking and insurance priorities, who were only too pleased to take the CCTV subsidies paid by the British government to promote safer town centres – effectively ‘safer shopping, safer consumerism’. So it was also a question of urban reinvestment and renewal, but the policy was often dressed up as crime control but it’s always much more than that.”
CCTV in the UK, ‘The magic solution’
The focus of Squires’ work has become more and more centred upon
crime control and criminology since the mid-1990s and one of the
first big local projects the professor was involved in consisted of
an evaluation of the deployment of CCTV (closed circuit television)
cameras in Brighton. This was in 1994, and fairly early on in the
deployment of publicly funded cameras in town centres and public
space. At the time there were not many published independent
studies of public area CCTV and, understandably, there were a
number of immediate questions about effectiveness, the impact of
CCTV on crime prevention, public reactions to them and, of course,
“I have to say I began fairly sceptical – I’m a social scientist after all – about some of the claims being made by CCTV developers and the security industry. They were suggesting that surveillance could be an almost ‘magic solution’ to town centre crime and disorder problems. On the other hand, for other people it was a step towards the surveillance state and ‘Big Brother’. So we undertook a sizeable public survey, before the cameras were installed and, then again a year later, to assess public attitudes; we looked at the implementation process and how the police were developing their strategies to integrate CCTV into their policing plans and we had access to crime and incident data to see if the cameras had affected the rates at which certain kinds of incidents occurred and if they could assist the police response.”
There were some fairly immediate conclusions:
- The survey found that relatively few people were much concerned about civil liberty issues (historically British people have generally been quite trusting of the police) those who were known to be more critical of the police (young people, minority ethnic groups) were the most opposed to the CCTV cameras but they were rather few in number.
- Secondly, CCTV had a smallish impact on some of the offence types in the town centre (theft, vehicle crime, criminal damage) but almost no impact on violence and disorder (offences involving young men and alcohol), the kinds of problems which caused most public concern.
- Finally it was clear that the police had a lot to learn about making the most of the cameras, they were at an early point in their ‘learning curve’ on policing effectively with cameras.
“With this study completed, we went on to undertake a further 7 or 8 CCTV implementation studies in different towns in and around London and the South East and it is from this work, and comparing this work with a growing body of ‘surveillance studies research’, that I have developed my outlook on CCTV.”
If you were looking to maximise crime control benefits you might first want to do a risk analysis: where was the crime worst? Who were the most vulnerable groups? What were the venues you most needed to protect? “If such an analysis had been done I don’t think town centre shopping areas would necessarily have come top of any list, instead you might prioritise schools, to protect children, or residential areas.”
“And I think, as time has gone on, the evidence has tended to bear out these assessments. CCTV usually achieves very little on its own, it needs to be part of more comprehensive security planning; it works much better in access-managed areas along with a guardianship presence, community support and a response capacity.”
Lessons learned from CCTV
“We are still learning lessons, and in some senses also
correcting some of the mistakes that were part of the original
hype, expectation and misperceptions about what CCTV could do. The
UK was quick to adapt CCTV and so made a number of errors, but
also, the capacity of the technology has developed very quickly.” A
number of the study visits to European cities that were a part of
the European Forum for Urban Security (EFUS) project, for example
Rotterdam, showed how the newer, more sophisticated, second
generation CCTV systems were an improvement on what had gone
“Secondly, there has been a significant change in policing outlooks and expectations of CCTV. It was first assumed that CCTV would prevent crime, that people would realise they could be seen committing offences and would think better of it (of course, the flaw in this thinking lies in the assumption that crime is mostly committed by rational people thinking clearly). In fact, the majority focus now in CCTV use is as an aid to police investigation and crime detection. The hope now is that more effective apprehension of offenders might reduce offending rates.”
Recommendations about the use of CCTV
“In a way, our recommendations were gathered together in the EFUS charter document and so I’m in broad support with the conclusions reached.” The basic point is that CCTV is a tool and everything depends upon the ways you use it. Policing, security and crime prevention are social relationships and if these are characterised mainly by division, mistrust and inequality, CCTV surveillance technologies are likely to exacerbate social problems and tensions. So police and policy-makers have to work at improving these basic relationships, there has to be accountability; there has to be democratic oversight and there have to be legal protections for civil liberties and personal privacy. Before all that, as I suggested at the outset, there needs to be a fully informed and proper debate about what the problems are, and what the best ways of solving them might be – it is not necessarily a given that CCTV is the best response.
Conclusion: CCTV ‘policing on the cheap’
Professor Squires’ worry is that CCTV will be used to facilitate a more automated ‘policing on the cheap’ – that cameras will replace cops and that the social relationship which is so important to good, democratic and accountable policing will be lost. “Secondly, though the point is related, I would be concerned by the consequences of ‘surveillance divisions’ – especially as societies (on present trends) become more unequal.” Security has become a major commodity; so the worry is that CCTV is used to protect some people, some social interests, rather more than others or, worse, that the surveillance lens is itself used in a discriminatory (on grounds of race, ethnicity, age etc.) fashion to further stigmatise, exclude and marginalise some social groups and communities. “We (social scientists) need to keep an eye on surveillance!”
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EUKN, Elizabeth Winkel
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