CCTV and the London riots: The UK needs a minimum quality law similar to France to protect our citizens says leading expert
| 18 June 2012
Exposing the guilty
One of the most shocking incidents that took place during the riots in London last August was the death of Richard Bowes, a 68 year old pensioner who was allegedly assaulted while trying to put out a fire and subsequently died. In March 2012, Darrell Desuze, a 17 year old from Hounslow pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter, a plea that was prompted by compelling CCTV footage. Other incidents such as the robbery of an injured Malaysian student by two east London men resulted in public outrage and further convictions. This was another case captured on video from a high definition mobile phone.
The riots were effectively televised and captured from all angles by video from both CCTV and mobile phones. Scores of convictions were based on this visual evidence but much of it was not from fixed CCTV cameras in retail premises, which, in the most part, offered such low quality that the evidence was not admissible in court.
The reality sharply exposed by the riots was that citizens armed with consumer grade mobile phone cameras were more effective than many CCTV systems. The reason was the poor quality of much of the analogue CCTV systems deployed as a deterrent which offered little help to the post incident analysis teams at the Metropolitan police.
A shift in perception
Prior to the riots, public opinion was divided on the benefits of CCTV. The position seems to have shifted with a 2012 survey – commissioned by network solutions provider D-Link indicated that 86% of Britons saying they feel people are more likely to accept CCTV following the successful identification and prosecution of rioters using surveillance images. In addition, the survey found that more than two-thirds (68%) believe video evidence will be a bigger deterrent to criminals in the future. However, the most relevant moving video and still images from the riots were from the relatively small number of high definition cameras, mostly deployed by the Metropolitan police and citizen witnesses.
In the view of many experts including myself, the UK needs a better-defined regulatory framework for CCTV, which defines a minimum quality standard. This is a fundamental requirement both to protect the citizens, help law enforcement and to safeguard against wrongful prosecutions. The law should emulate other aspects of health and safety legislation such as fire alarms and should be enforced using a similar mechanism.
Defining a minimum legal standard
The UK is clearly lagging behind as is highlighted by the position of France. Following the 2005 London subway bombings, footage of the attackers was captured on CCTV but the quality of these images was extremely poor. Reacting to this concern, France decided to implement a new law that forced any public building that deployed CCTV to adhere to a minimum quality threshold of approximately 4 times greater than the typical analogue CCTV cameras deployed at the time. This level of megapixel quality allows more accurate identification of individuals and remote surveillance.
The question as to why the UK does not implement a similar minimum threshold is complex but in my view it stems from the political concerns of the perception of a “big brother state.” This is a real concern but in a democratic and lawful nation like the UK with all its checks and balances, this political concern should not over arch the needs of the police to protect our citizens and more importantly catch criminals and achieve successful prosecutions.
Technology can help
Cost is often cited as a reason that a minimum quality threshold for CCTV would be impractical. However, higher resolution cameras, using shared IP networks actually require fewer cameras to be deployed. New technologies like hemispheric lens, which cover 360 degrees from a single camera, further reduce overall numbers while providing better levels of coverage. Other technology advances like faster 3G and 4G mobile networks allow higher resolution cameras to be deployed more cost effectively without requiring additional wiring and physical infrastructure.
The Information Commissioners Office, The Home Office and local police forces have all issued guidelines around the deployment of CCTV. The most enforced of these rules are in respect to CCTV within licensed premises such as bars and clubs but these only impact a relatively small percentage of the community.
Call to action
Whether you believe the number of cameras in the UK is in the million or hundreds of thousands, the technology is used across society. From number plate recognition for congestion charges to catching shoplifters in retail premises, CCTV is not going away.
CCTV alone will not reduce crime. However, CCTV that fails to deliver a basic level of quality, coverage and accessibility to the police is a false economy. The riots are over and the underlying causes around the socio-economic state of the UK are a serious issue that hopefully will be addressed by our nation. However, the debate over how to combat the criminality that resulted cannot subside. The general public, security industry and the police need to continue the call on the state to make CCTV a resource that makes our society a better place.