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CCTV is safety ... not Big Brother

PUBLISHED: 04:16 14 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:40 03 March 2010

ON your way to work, in the shops, or even near your home, you've probably been caught on camera a number of times today.

CCTV has become the safety-conscious Big Brother of the 21st century, but is it really efficient enough to meet its huge social obligations? Debbie Watson reports.

ON your way to work, in the shops, or even near your home, you've probably been caught on camera a number of times today.

CCTV has become the safety-conscious Big Brother of the 21st century, but is it really efficient enough to meet its huge social obligations? Debbie Watson reports.

WHEN the national press released a series of fuzzy security photos taken in a US airport, it must have seemed like an unlikely tool in catching the world's most wanted terrorists.

How could anyone recognise even their closest friend from such a sketchy and distorted CCTV image?

How could the world rely on such deformed products of technology?

In truth, few could possibly deny the potential benefits of our closed circuit television systems the world over.

After all, this is the network of strategically-placed hi-tech cameras which has helped to catch many an attacker, victim or witness.

We know what a crucial role they played in piecing together the last known movements of that innocent and fated young toddler, Jamie Bulger.

We know what a tool they were in capturing convicted rapist Kevin Chambers, after an assault here in the town centre of Ipswich.

Their intention cannot be in doubt.

But, despite this, it doesn't take the greatest of cynic to begin to see the fault in the well-meaning CCTV system.

Time and again, detectives have released potentially crucial pictures taken from these cameras, in the determined hope that they will help toward the arrest or the discovery of a particular person.

Unfortunately, the clarity of such images is often seriously impaired – making it so very much harder to trace the witnesses and the public assistance which could genuinely aid otherwise lengthy investigations.

Only a few short weeks ago, the Ipswich public saw that problem in its full glory.

Pictures released in the hunt for a rapist – following an alleged assault in Stone Lodge Lane – fell severely short of the quality and definition that the public, and the police, might surely have been expecting.

So who's to blame for their inadequacy? Why are we being left to rely on second-rate technology?

"The quality of different CCTV systems is extremely variable," said Jim Manning, Borough community safety officer.

"You cannot expect to get good pictures if your equipment is not up to par, and we are learning all the time about the need to update systems, and to ensure that they are living up to their obligations correctly."

In Ipswich town centre alone, a CCTV scheme has been in place for some eight years, across 78 car parks, four subways, 26 streets, the bus station and the town hall.

And now that system is about to be dramatically upgraded.

"We've recently received a government grant of £129,000 to help us improve the way the cameras operate, and yes, that should mean better pictures in cases of crimes and investigations," said Jim.

"Our cameras are already very capable, and cost around £5,000 a piece, but the picture clarity relies on the technology in the central control room itself.

"That is where all the processing of the pictures takes place, and that is where businesses should be investing money to make sure that they can rely on images when they need to."

In the case of Ipswich, the new grant will mean that our existing VHS central system can now be completely replaced with digital technology.

Essentially, it will allow a greater number of defined 'lines' to be reproduced from the cameras, wherever images are relied on by the police.

"You have to appreciate that wherever a picture is reproduced, it is going to deteriorate to a certain extent," commented Jim. "This means that newspaper reproductions of suspects are often going to be quite poor, but we are trying to minimise that deterioration with our new kit.

"The technology we installed eight years ago was good at the time, but now we can expect higher standards and we want to embrace that."

Jim insists that the present cameras are already doing the job, but he admitted that more could, and would, be done.

"We do get some very good footage with the cameras we already have, and we are playing a big part in town safety by picking up some 200 incidents a month, on a collective total of 80 cameras.

"The system is effective already, but it can be improved much, much more."

Jim accepts that, unfortunately, in the case of the recent Ipswich rape, the system may not have been as useful as we might have hoped.

Just one camera was positioned within the vicinity of Ipswich Rail Station, and seemingly, it was not effective enough – particularly when its images were later to be printed in local newspapers as a method of crime investigation.

"This is where we are very optimistic about the new digital system," added Jim. "It will give us much better clarity in the pictures we see in the control room, and now, it will also ensure that we can produce working copies of stills which are as good as they were on the camera.

"At the moment, a paper such as the Evening Star is getting a third or fourth generation picture to issue to its readers. The degradation by that stage is quite substantial, and we need to use the new equipment to minimise that."

In Ipswich we have learned dramatic lessons about the power of CCTV in the last few years. After all, it was these such systems which helped to correctly link Kevin Chambers to a subway rape in 1998 >>

Nationally, however, crime prevention teams have also recognised the benefits in the light of more high-profile cases.

Jim said: "We have had to learn a lot from what happened with Jamie Bulger in that Bootle shopping centre.

"That centre had been using the same tapes over and over again, and it meant that the quality of the results was reduced."

He added: "We saw from that that there was a genuine need to replace the tapes daily, and to only use them a maximum number of times.

"That's how we operate here in Ipswich and I think that has helped us to get a better quality of recording than we might of otherwise had.

"Our town has been at the forefront of creating a code of practice for operating CCTV nationally, and no-one can deny that the system has proved its worth."

In the UK, closed-circuit television has certainly proved an invaluable resource, but in the light of America's terrorist attacks, there may now be more enthusiastic call for its improvement on a global scale.

Jim said: "America tends to be less inclined to have cameras in public places because of human rights issues, where the UK is more open to the use of such a facility.

"Also, in other parts of the world there is nothing to insist on a certain standard of filming – and perhaps that is something that will now begin changing over time."

It will be several more weeks before Ipswich finally welcomes its new CCTV system, and the town's control room 'matrix' is digitally upgraded. But there is little doubt that this is a purchase the community wants.

Time and again we have seen the potential use of such technology, and have recognised the clear and simple advantages that can be gained from a photographic 'Big Brother'.

"Here in Ipswich we made a conscious decision, particularly in the light of more high-profile crimes, that our cameras should be able to produce the best possible pictures," added Jim.

"Eight years ago, the town's installation was right for the job, but now we have the chance to improve our community's safety even further.

"That's our intention, and we plan to use this system to act straight away – it's a big investment, but one that potentially makes ours a far safer and more secure town in which to live."

Weblinks:

www.ipswich.gov.uk

www.crimereduction.co.uk

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