Watching us with an untrained eye

CCTV and Policing
March 11, 2005

After BBC presenter Jill Dando was murdered on her doorstep in 1999, detectives anxious to establish whether she was followed on her last journey gathered tapes from every CCTV camera she had passed. The trip was just a few miles across West London, broken by a couple of stops for shopping, but it turned out she had been captured on video dozens of times.

For the police, those glimpses of Dando on the street and of her BMW in traffic were undoubtedly useful, but their cumulative effect was also creepy. Here was a law-abiding person whose actions in public places had - unknown to her - been recorded in extraordinary detail.

As law lecturer Benjamin J. Goold makes clear in this illuminating, timely work, we should not be surprised. We have become "the most watched citizenry in Europe". If that makes us uncomfortable he also brings reassurance, for on his evidence Big Brother is often badly trained, confused about his mission and looking in the wrong places. As for the police, they did not want Big Brother in the first place and are poorly adapted to exploiting the help he offers.

In a study conducted in 1997-99, Goold examines public-area surveillance schemes in six unnamed English towns and cities. He has observed and interviewed both civilian camera operators and police officers of all ranks who were associated with the schemes.

He first demonstrates, depressingly, both the rapidity with which CCTV spread in Britain and the casualness with which we accept it. Germany and France have been far more circumspect: a revealing footnote explains that French law requires police to take out a warrant relating to a particular risk of crime before cameras can be employed.

The drive in Britain came from politicians in the Nineties who presented CCTV as a reassurance to the public and as proof that they were doing something about crime. This warped the project from the start, as cameras were placed in areas where the public would see them rather than where they would do most good.

The police, initially concerned on budgetary and ethical grounds (they did not want to be seen as spies), got in on the act late and found themselves coping with an array of unwelcome faits accomplis.

Who is behind the cameras? Mainly white married men in their forties and fifties, some of whom have experience in the security business and most of whom feel they were not properly trained - a view often shared by the police.

The schemes most closely integrated with policing - those based in police stations, where staff mingle with officers in the canteen - appear to function most effectively, at least in police eyes. Arm's-length local authority schemes struggle.

Close liaison, however, may have some unfortunate consequences. Goold is cautious about ethnic bias, mainly because his sample area is overwhelmingly white, but he allows himself to state that "black and Asian people are more likely to be subjected to gratuitous surveillance" and that this problem is greater in police-led schemes.

As for the police themselves, they have hardly been transformed by this new tool. Beat officers, it seems, do not change their routes to take account of the presence of CCTV and there has been no redeployment of resources towards unwatched areas. Officers are also concerned by how often tapes are used against them in disciplinary proceedings.

CCTV and Policing is a rigorous piece of work that sheds fascinating light on a subject too little discussed, and it deserves to be read far outside the realm of academic criminology, especially by those concerned about civil liberties.

Brian Cathcart is senior lecturer in journalism, Kingston University. He has written books on the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Jill Dando.

CCTV and Policing: Public Area Surveillance and Police Practices in Britain

Author - Benjamin J. Goold
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 244
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 19 926514 3

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