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How effective are Video Surveillance Systems (VSS)?

VSS are operated by most Local Authorities in England and Wales and are intrinsically linked with operational policing to protect the public and ensure their safety. Indeed the whole genre of video surveillance systems (VSS) beyond the traditional CCTV is growing rapidly – Drones and Body Worn cameras, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and evolution of technology incorporating artificial intelligence represent the current landscape. It’s evolved in the last few decades from just a few dozen cameras to millions of cameras in operation now. They are everywhere from stadiums and trains stations, shops and high-streets, cash machines and even abattoirs.

There is of course a balance to be struck between ensuring the effectiveness of VSS and preventing serious intrusion into citizen’s private lives. So how effective are they and is the cost of installing and operating those systems really worth it?

There is little evidence to suggest that these systems help to deter crime, however VSS footage plays a major role in responding to incidents, investigating crimes and prosecuting those responsible. Such footage is useful in both low level crime cases and high profile incidents – it’s captured the movements of terrorists such as the culprit of the attack at Manchester arena in 2017 and helped to identify the suspects of the Salisbury Novichok poisoning in 2018.

It’s also used to find missing adults and children. A recent report by Missing People said someone is reported missing every 90 seconds in the UK.

But in some cases, Local Authority VSS schemes are being switched off due to a lack of funding as other important areas seek investment in resources, or because VSS is not proving to be effective in catching criminals. If systems are of limited use then it is right they should be removed. However, if they are valuable and play a crucial role in protecting the public then Local Authorities and the police should be able to explain why their use is justified and should receive adequate funding to continue providing this service.

It is therefore vital that organisations are able to demonstrate the value of the surveillance camera systems they use and for its use to be recorded as a detection factor against police crime records at every stage of the criminal process. That means looking at how many hours the police spend reviewing VSS evidence, how many times footage is used as evidence in court and how many times that footage results in a prosecution.

For several years Dorset police have been recording the number of times VSS (in this case CCTV) is used to prosecute individuals accused of committing a crime. A yearly average of 47,014 crimes were reported in the years 2015-2018, of which there were 9,556 positive outcomes. Dorset police statistics show there was a CCTV element in over a third of these cases – it is unfortunate that not all forces record their CCTV detection factors in this way and I would urge they do to ensure users of VSS can see the benefits.

It is also worth noting that police and Local Authorities in England and Wales must pay due regard to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice when operating surveillance camera systems overtly in public places and that Section 33(4) of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 says that failure to comply with the Code may be detrimental to the use of VSS evidence in court as this can be raised within disclosure by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and may be taken into account.

Complying with the Code, and recording the value of VSS under a standardised formal process, will help police and Local Authorities to demonstrate the value of those systems and ensure there are no missed opportunities to take criminals off our streets and protect the public from harm.

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  1. Comment by Andy Wells posted on

    Interesting statistics, but the true worth is much greater than this valuable study shows.
    In the vibrant and busy London Borough Hackney we have countless incidents a month where CCTV plays a pivotal role, such as:
    + Officer safety issues - putting up a code 0 for officers being assaulted.
    + Safeguarding - watching over Officers doing high risk activities in case they are assaulted or are the subject of malicious complaint.
    + MISPERS - tracing missing persons and vectoring Police patrols into intercept them.
    + Drink drivers - vectoring Police patrols into intercept them.
    + Disqualified drivers flagged up by ANPR - vectoring Police patrols into intercept them.
    + Suspicious persons[s] - often in possession of drugs and / or weapons, found when stop/searched by Police.
    + Pursuits - maintaining contact with fleeing vehicles when Police units pull back due to danger to the public.

    It is rare that any of these activities result in evidence being collected by the Police, as there is often no need - the evidence is in the drugs / weapons found, the breath sample taken, or there is no evidence required at all - such as when MISPERS are returned back to their 'place of safety'.

    None of those societal benefits will be evidenced by the statistics contained in crime complaints - we need a more sophisticated and nuanced method of determining the value of CCTV to society in general and operational policing in particular.

  2. Comment by James Sanderson SPP Solutions Ltd posted on

    I must say that I agree wholeheartedly.

    Having said I agree I have to ask the question, why? Why do we have so many cameras and yet by comparison only a small proportion of crime is directly solved by CCTV /VSS?

    The answer is very simple. Operator training and the unwillingness of Control Rooms to change tactics.

    I work it the training sector and it matters not whether operators are working in private PSS Control Rooms or LA Control Rooms. The current PSS course is outdated and doesn’t prepare an operator for modern CCTV issues, coupled with that is the fact that legislatively Operators are the only people who MUST do a course before using CCTV. Managers can be promoted or moved into role with little or no Control Room experience and thus drift into bad practice and learned helplessness. Very few managers or supervisors actually listen to operators who are very often the most up to date given the shortfalls of the course they undertake.

    Because of Control Room numbers and manning most operators become reactive rather than proactive and by doing so they decrease the chance of actual crime being seen by CCTV. Most CCTV evidence is circumstantial and will be until attitudes change. I have worked on Government Estate in London as well as LA and Private Business and it matters not what Control Room I visit the issues are the same. Very very rarely will a Control Room have a handle as to what crime issues they have in their area. There will be a lack of understanding amongst operators of how criminals operate and almost an arrogance that criminals are stupid. Criminals apart from being very good at what they do are also surveillance aware in a lot of cases. If a criminal can operate in a CCTV area or zone and not get caught then he / she knows straight away that CCTV is ineffective. We now fall into CCTV being circumstantial.

    CCTV is more effective in situations where investment is made in the people. Technology is great but there is no substitute for well trained, motivated and proactive people. CCTV is a tool to aid security but it in no way improves security if it’s not used properly.

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