Research shows CCTV is oversold, but its ubiquity stifles work on other means of crime prevention, says Mike Press.
Tackling crime is not rocket science - it is more complicated than that. But technological reductionism too often obscures the complexities of the problem by presenting CCTV as a solution to crime, antisocial behaviour and the terrorist threat. The logic of this technology as a means of crime prevention and detection is seemingly beyond debate as it becomes ubiquitous. Our unwillingness to question CCTV is a denial of the highly critical evidence that researchers have produced on its effectiveness, and it stands in the way of the implementation of more creative approaches to crime prevention that some universities have been exploring.
The continuing trial of the July 21 terror suspects has made much use of footage showing, for example, two defendants buying 50 gallons of hydrogen peroxide. Such high-profile cases seem to present irrefutable proof of CCTV's value as an evidence-gathering tool. It also raises the question of whether, as the defendants were obviously not West End hairdressers, our surveillance society is better at watching than noticing.
Throughout the UK there are some 5 million CCTV cameras. In most towns and cities we are being recorded just about all the time. With installation and running costs averaging at least £3,000 per camera, this adds up to an astronomical sum. The country's CCTV equipment supply industry is worth more than £1 billion annually.
To further fuel demand, innovations are being introduced. While Glasgow introduced the UK's first talking cameras, Aberdeen went for the "Dalek option" of trialling CCTV installed in the hats of police officers.
"Smarter" CCTV has now integrated facial recognition, numberplate recognition and behavioural monitoring into new systems.
Ministers, police authorities and local government make the case for investing in the technology as a key crime prevention and detection tool, and in a recent survey of public opinion, 80 per cent of people believed that CCTV would reduce crime in their neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, the evidence does not stack up. The Home Office's own comprehensive evaluation, commissioned from the department of criminology at Leicester University, was cautious about the claims being made for it.
In short, it concluded that successive governments had "oversold" CCTV as a "magic bullet". The researchers, having evaluated 13 projects, concluded that the technology did offer potential benefits but only when it was integrated within a clearly defined strategy that took full account of local crime problems. However, they said that "the majority of the schemes evaluated did not reduce crime, and even where there was a reduction this was mostly not due to CCTV; nor did CCTV schemes make people feel safer, much less change their behaviour".
The police argue that the technology is worthwhile because it helps them to respond faster to assaults in public spaces. Another study, by researchers at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, concurred but also concluded there was no evidence that CCTV had a deterrent effect on alcohol-fuelled street violence.
This was supported by the Leicester study, which concluded that too much should not be expected of CCTV. "It requires human intervention to work to maximum efficiency and the problems it helps deal with are complex... There needs to be greater recognition that reducing and preventing crime is not easy and that ill-conceived solutions are unlikely to work no matter what the investment."
The sad truth is that strong media images of CCTV used in high-profile court cases, from Jamie Bulger to the July 21 terror suspects, eclipse any balanced or informed discussion about crime prevention prompted by the rigorous research undertaken by UK universities. As a result, other initiatives and approaches to crime prevention are far less well-funded, evaluated and applied than they might otherwise be.
My research has demonstrated how design disciplines across the built environment can have a positive impact on crime prevention and deterrence.
Over the past decade, research teams at Salford and Dundee universities, the University of the Arts London and elsewhere have developed prototypes and guidelines that demonstrate the value of the creative disciplines in tackling crime.
Diverse strategies are needed to deal with the complexities of the problem, and the unique strengths of UK academics in rigorous evaluation and in creative development can provide solutions. But while CCTV reigns supreme, the knowledge arising from our crime science and creative disciplines will remain either ignored or undervalued.
Mike Press is professor of design policy at Dundee University.