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Tuesday, 13 August, 2002, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
CCTV: Does it work?
James Bulger CCTV
Shopping centre cameras caught James Bulger's killers
Britain is increasingly becoming a place caught on videotape but opinion is divided about the real effect CCTV cameras have on reducing crime.

The average citizen in the UK is caught on CCTV cameras 300 times a day.

But analysis suggests CCTV's overall impact is less than impressive.

Home Office Minister Lord Falconer insisted in June that cameras can make a "significant" difference to crime levels.

If they only capture the tops of people's heads they are less than useless

Gloria Laycock

So which view is right?

They both are, says criminologist Gloria Laycock.

Professor Laycock is director of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London.

CCTV footage memorably caught the last movements of BBC presenter Jill Dando before her murder in 1999.

"It depends on what cameras are being used for and if they are maintained properly," said Professor Laycock.

Bulger case

"For example, they can be used very effectively on motorways to control traffic flow.

"And when they are used overtly, they work well as a deterrent to public order offences.

"But if they are placed high on a pole so they only capture the tops of people's heads or are out of focus, they are less than useless."

Jill Dando on CCTV
Jill Dando's last movements traced on CCTV
CCTV was "incredibly helpful" to police investigating the Bulger case, she added.

Cameras set up in a Bootle shopping centre in 1993 caught three-year-old James Bulger being led away by the two 10-year-olds who murdered him.

"It showed the police they were looking for two kids rather than a paedophile," said Professor Laycock.

Detectives hunting a nail bomber who was responsible for three murders during 13 days in London in April 1999, credited CCTV cameras with the major breakthrough in the case.

Crime rise

Officers spent hours going through footage to place bomber David Copeland near the bomb sites - and their investigations paid off.

A report by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) which was based on Home Office research, revealed that of 24 studies carried out in city centres, only 13 showed crime had fallen since CCTV cameras were installed.

Crime rates rose significantly in four other cities.

It was allegedly going to give us these magnificent benefits of reducing crime

Prof Jason Ditton
Scottish Centre for Criminology
Rachel Armitage, of Nacro's crime and social policy unit, said the cameras' effectiveness is often "over-stated".

That conclusion was also borne out by a four-year study of CCTV in Glasgow.

The Scottish Centre for Criminology concluded in 1999 that the powers of the cameras had been "over-hyped as a "magic bullet cure".

"It was allegedly going to give us these magnificent benefits of reducing crime and making the fear of crime diminish to almost nothing," said the report's author Professor Jason Ditton.

He concluded: "Although it probably does have some utility for the police it does not have these wonderful great societal benefits."


The police have routinely praised the use of street cameras.

They believe criminals are more likely to plead guilty when faced by the undeniable evidence of being caught on camera.

The Home Office says this saves money.

"A court hearing with a guilty verdict saves around 3,000 to 5,000," said Hugh Marriage, the Home Office's crime reduction officer for the south-east of England.

CCTV cameras at Scotland Yard
Cameras are effective if monitored routinely

"And CCTV pictures mean there has been an enormous increase in guilty verdicts."

For the police to have tape at trials, the cameras have to work in the first place.

Often they are badly positioned, out of focus or simply broken.

Police investigating the rape of a mentally ill patient at a hospital in Ealing, London, in June hoped CCTV cameras over the building's entrance would provide them with vital clues to her attacker.

They discovered that the videotape had run out.

Milly Dowler

CCTV also missed the vital seconds in March when they believe Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler was abducted.

A conference on CCTV cameras is being organised by the BBC Crimewatch UK programme and the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science.

The poor quality of footage on the programme prompted Nick Ross, the programme's presenter and a close friend of Miss Dando, to act.

The conference next spring will bring together police, security firms and local authorities.

They will focus on the best CCTV systems, how they should best be used and how technology can be improved.

See also:

16 Jan 02 | England
27 Jun 02 | England
29 Apr 02 | N Ireland
06 Aug 01 | UK
28 Jun 02 | England
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