Official: UK security cameras not particularly effective

May 7, 2008
Official calls cameras 'utter fiasco', says video solves only 3 percent of crimes

In becoming the world's most-watched nation, Britain was promised a commensurate drop in crime.

But the estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit television cameras in the U.K. have made barely a blip on the graph of public safety, a senior London detective in charge of the program admitted yesterday.

Calling Britain's multibillion-dollar surveillance network "an utter fiasco," Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville said video footage has solved only 3 per cent of crime.

"Billions of pounds have been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court," Neville, head of the visual images unit at New Scotland Yard, told a security conference in London.

"It's been an utter fiasco... There's no fear of CCTV. Why don't people fear it? (They think) the cameras are not working."

Neville's warning came as London police launched an effort to improve video-based convictions, including a searchable citywide database intended to track and identify offenders and an initiative to put images of suspects in muggings, robberies and sexual assaults on the Internet.

Separately, the London Metropolitan police force hopes to revive efforts toward the creation of a nationwide CCTV crime database that would integrate the images of convicted offenders from 43 separate police jurisdictions that currently maintain their own video surveillance systems.

"We are (beginning) to collate images across London," said Neville. "This has got to be balanced against any Big Brother concerns, with safeguards. The images are from thefts, robberies and more serious crimes. Possibly the (database) could be national in future."

Neville's comments come in the wake of a series of studies, including a government report last October, which indicate most CCTV footage lacks sufficient quality to help police identify offenders.

Advocates of Britain's "eyes in the sky" point to the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 attacks on London's transport system, when images from a handful of the more than 9,000 cameras on the capital's buses and trains proved critical in identifying the attackers within days.

Critics of the surveillance system, by contrast, note the cameras did nothing to prevent the attacks.

Britain's opposition Liberal Democrats last fall concluded that London's $400 million system of publicly funded CCTV cameras is virtually useless in crime reduction after the party used the Freedom of Information Act to collate and compare crime data from the City of London and its 32 boroughs.

The study found that the borough of Barnet, with 150 publicly funded cameras, experienced a crime rate almost identical to Hackney's, with nearly 1,500 cameras. In both boroughs, police solved about one in five reported crimes in 2006-07.

Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers yesterday defended the long-term potential for CCTV, saying that future technological improvements will eventually place video "equal to DNA and fingerprints" as a crime-detection tool.