Glowing reports of the effectiveness of CCTV are announced regularly. Police in Scotland recently claimed a 75 per cent drop in crime following the installation of a £130,000 closed circuit TV system in Airdrie. Not only are people delighted because they are no longer afraid to go out shopping, say local police, but even criminals welcome the chance to prove their innocence by calling on evidence from the cameras. Crime in car parks has dropped by ninety per cent. People say they feel safer. Indeed they should. Assaults and other violent crimes appear also to have been decimated in the center of town.
The government believes this is because CCTV deters ‘opportunistic’ crime, where people take advantage of a situation on the spur of the moment. Phillip Edwards from the Home Office Crime Prevention Unit says the government is using CCTV as part of a long term plan to reduce overall crime. “Today’s opportunist is tomorrow’s professional criminal. If we decrease the number of opportunities for easy crime, we can reduce the number of people becoming professional criminals”.
The logic, and the statistics, are superficially impressive, but some analysts are not convinced. In a report to the Scottish Office on the impact of CCTV, Jason Ditton, Director of the Scottish Centre for Criminology, argued that many claims of crime reduction are little more than fantasy. “All (evaluations and statistics) we have seen so far are wholly unreliable”, The British Journal of Criminology went further by describing the statistics as “….post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self interested practitioner “.
The crime reduction claims being made by CCTV proponents are not convincing. Three recent criminological reports (Home Office, Scottish Office and Southbank University) have discredited the conventional wisdom about the cameras effectiveness. In a report to the Scottish Office on the impact of CCTV, Jason Ditton, Director of the Scottish Centre for Criminology, argued that the claims of crime reduction are little more than fantasy. “All (evaluations and statistics) we have seen so far are wholly unreliable”, The British Journal of Criminology described the statistics as “….post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self interested practitioner.” In short, the crime statistics are without credibility.
The crime statistics rarely, if ever, reflect the hypothesis that CCTV merely displaces criminal activity to areas outside the range of the cameras. One of the features of current surveillance practice is that the cameras are often installed in high-rent commercial areas. Crime may be merely pushed from high value commercial areas into low rent residential areas. Councils often find that it is impossible to resist demands for such systems. There is an additional element of displacement that should be of particularly concern to all communities. Since the growth of CCTV as the primary means of crime prevention, more traditional, community based measures have been discarded.
A Scottish Centre for Criminology report on CCTV in Airdre was unable to rule out displacement as a factor, while various studies in other countries indicate that burglars and other criminals will travel long distances to commit crimes. Discussing the justification for establishing a surveillance system of 16 cameras in Manchester, Gordon Conquest, chairman of the city centre sub committee of Manchester Council, candidly admitted “No crackdown on crime does more than displace it, and that’s the best we can do at the moment.”
The Crime Prevention Unit of the Home Office appears to agree. In 1993 it suppressed the findings of a survey on the crime impact of camera surveillance on the basis that the displacement effect had been all but ignored. In other words, crime may be merely pushed from high value commercial areas into low rent residential areas. One of the features of current surveillance practice is that the cameras are often installed in high-rent commercial areas. Councils often find that it is impossible to resist demands for such systems. The trend is fueled in part by the insurance industry, which in some towns is offering a thirty per cent reduction in premiums to local retailers who pay a contribution to a CCTV levy system. A nationwide insurance discount scheme is currently being negotiated, and should be in place by 1996.
Some police also concede that CCTV displaces crime. Richard Thomas, Acting Deputy Chief Constable for Gwent, recently told the BBC’s Andrew Neil that he believed CCTV pushed some crime beyond the range of the cameras. And in his interview with 20/20, Leslie Sharp said “Certainly the crime goes somewhere. I don’t believe that just because you’ve got cameras in a city centre that everyone says ‘Oh well, we’re going to give up crime and get a job”.
The cameras are also creating a vastly increased rate of conviction after crimes are detected. Virtually everyone caught committing an offense on camera pleads guilty nowadays. Once people know they have been videotaped, they admit the offense immediately. Such is also the case in Newcastle, where the installation in 1992 of a 16 camera system has resulted in a 100 per cent incidence of guilty pleas. Police are delighted at the time and money they are saving from long and expensive trials. Some legal experts are a little more wary of the implications of these results, arguing that – like DNA evidence – juries can be seduced and defendants intimidated in equal proportions by evidence that might not normally stand up to scrutiny. Indeed some districts are now reporting that people are surrendering after the mere mention in newspaper reports that their alleged activities had been captured on CCTV.