Is anyone watching anymore?

In 1994 the then Conservative government under then Home Secretary Michael Howard launched the Partners Against Crime programme which championed the installation of closed circuit television (CCTV) in town and city centres across the UK. The nation was still reeling from seeing the grainy images of James Bulger being led away from a shopping centre by his teenage killers.

This started a minor gold rush of camera installations across the country supported by central government funds and the enthusiasm of local governments to improve some pretty unpleasant urban areas. It has to be said that, largely speaking, the money was well spent. The UK stood at the forefront of CCTV and the results were good in terms of image quality as well as the public response to having the knowledge that cameras were protecting them. A world-leading skillset grew in the UK embracing infrastructure, communications and optical challenges on a daily basis. Engineers worked with cameras, lenses and telemetry controllers on a daily basis the likes of which would frighten and confuse quite a few integrators today.

Wind forward two decades and the scene has changed somewhat. The government support for public space CCTV ended, as it was always going to, and a lack of investment in technology refreshes has taken its toll. Its difficult to blame local authorities for this situation as there has been pressure on public expenditure long before the 2008 banking crisis. However, the sense of surprise that CCTV systems that are entering their second decade of usage are less effective than they could be (or once were) is quite puzzling. After all, we throw away mobile phones and computers at a frightening rate and the cost of these is probably more than the average CCTV camera.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but maybe a scheduled programme of replacement and enhancement over a number of years would have been better than waiting until the system was ready to fall over. But I guess the same could be said for a school roof, a pot-hole riddled section of road or a decaying playground.

Whilst it is unfair to say there has been a backlash against public space CCTV, when councils present a case of closing a library versus keeping a town-centre camera surveillance system people will be vocal when making their choices.

But is turning our back on public space CCTV the right thing to do? Every day there is an appeal in our newspapers asking if we have seen a person whose image has been captured by CCTV. Are we to rely on private enterprise to do this in the future? Anyone who has stood in a CCTV control room will know the interaction the skilled operators have with police and other parties in the supervision of their areas. Statistics will no doubt show that very few live crimes are witnessed or prevented by these operators but that is a rather foolish argument. It is like arguing against a vaccination on the evidence that there has been no disease. But going back to the work of the operators, witnessing a crime is only one part of the role they play. Directing resources to a broken-down vehicle blocking a road, deploying community officers to a park where anti-social behaviour is taking place, collecting information on known drug-dealers are all examples of the work that is done in real-time and which couldn’t be undertaken in video review suites days later. Nobody is suggesting that once the operators are no longer watching the streets are going to be full of bank robbers but maybe the low-level crime and general disruption that has spoiled so many towns in the past will return. The short-term economic savings are suddenly eclipsed by the loss of shoppers and visitors.

Of course there is also the issue of privacy. We now live in a paradoxical society where people are willing to post their every movement of every day on a social media site but will cry foul at the thought they are being watched on public space CCTV. Hours of television schedules are dedicated to shows that rely exclusively on CCTV footage accompanied by a soulless commentary. CCTV is now an entertainment media in itself.

Its ironic that whilst Chief Constables might be supporting moves to get cameras turned off of live monitoring TV executives will be clamouring for more footage to fill the ever-growing schedules. Our appetite for crime prevention appears to be declining as our appetite for cheap laughs and shocks increases.