Saturday, 21 June 2008

Why I'm not a big fan of CCTV

This was actually a response of mine to a question on another post, I've decided to expand on some of the points and offer it over for discussion.

My view on CCTV, is that just like anything else the government have brought in, they did it half arsed. It's very good when it's used properly and to it's full potential but without sufficient resources to use it fully in all cases, or to store and use in court proceedings, it is almost worthless most of the time. CCTV can be invaluable in fast time incidents where the control room or an experienced operator can give the officers on the ground not only the information they actually need, but a mental image of the scene prior to arrival. As an eye in the sky, in many cases it beats a plane or chopper hands down with value for money and versatility, but ONLY when used live.

As for trawling through hours and hours of CCTV for incidents it has to be viewed and used in real time and costs hundreds of thousands in man-hours every year, although some of the evidence that can be gleaned can be pivotal and can make or disprove a case. In courts they still demand the CCTV on VHS tape as they haven't got duplex (ability to view lots of camera angles recorded at once) or DVD players because of cost. Most council and private CCTV facilities now store onto hard-drive because it is more cost effective than additional storage or tapes and quicker to access and can burn off easily onto disc. The cost in time alone of transferring to a system that is nearly 30 years old from DVD's to VHS tape, is completely rediculous.

Added to this, is the fact that most police computers have the CD drive locked out to stop people listening to music or uploading software (which they never could or did anyway, as with the internet they blocked access before anyone ever got the chance to abuse it through fear of looking bad in the press or to the public) even viewing CCTV becomes a complete pain in the arse and cannot be done quickly or easily. Virtually all of the time we have to view it at scene in order to get all the information we need for the crime report or to relay to other officers. I also have no idea how many times I've been to a job where the person who knows how to use or even access the system isn't there, or no one actually knows how to use it as the head office just installed it without showing anyone how it works.

It's all well and good bringing in the cameras if you can use them properly and the infrastructure is behind them to actually use them effectively as evidence in court or investigation, but it isn't and in most cases it is collected and stored as unused evidence at the behest of the CPS. In many cases it's collected for negative evidence as the cameras aren't actually that good, it is also collected to cover arses as it is almost certain that somewhere a CCTV camera has seen some part of an incident and even if the footage is worthless, we can't be seen to ignore it.

I have no idea how many people think that CCTV is as good as on TV or in the movies, it categorically is not. In most cases such as shops or some old council cameras the image is shocking, due to poor quality equipment and an unrealistic expectation of its value. CCTV used to be a good deterrent when it first became popular, but nowadays many criminals know that it is practically worthless. They know that their brief will be able to bring the quality into question anyway and also that the chances of every frame of every vid being analysed and watched properly is incredibly slim. Whereas areas that install CCTV see an initial drop in crime, after time the crime rate creeps back up to its existing levels as they simply don't care if they are on camera any more.

There is also no such thing as digital 'zooming' of an image that can be used for everyday investigations, the reason for this is a computer program is used to extrapolate the information in the image to enhance it digitally, which is technically nothing more than an educated guess. An image only contains a certain number of pixels (such as the ratings used to show the resolution of digital cameras) and whether you have 1k pixel images or 10 mega pixels, if you zoom in too much you just end up with a big pixel on the screen. There are systems used by the military and other government agencies however they are not admissible in court. The reason it is not admissible as evidence is because one computer program could give one result and another could give something else and so there develops a question of doubt. Even if the system is proved to be 99.99% accurate, the 0.01% of doubt is an issue a good defence brief would bring up and capitalise on during trial, with the view to getting the evidence deemed inadmissible.

You can use a computer program to clean up an image by clearing static 'snow' pixels or enhancing the colours of existing ones. This type of enhancement was used by the FBI labs in the Milly Dowler case to ID a car, but there is nothing usable in court today of the same level as in the film Blade Runner where they zoom in almost indefinitely to a photo to get an image.

A perfect example of the expectations and limitations of technology is the photos that Police officers took at the 'Jack the Ripper' murders. They photographed the eyes of one of the victims in the hope that in the future the technology might exists to zoom in enough to get an image of the murderer. However due to the resolution of the film and prints, you can't blow up what isn't there in the first place and using a computer program to try just gives an indication, not proof. The same goes for a digital image and a tape frame.

In a case a few years ago, I had traced a car via CCTV through a large part of the city I worked in, from the location of the incident to a few hundred yards away from where the suspect was arrested in the same car as ID'd by the description of his face and the number plate. When I took the 15 odd tapes from the different cameras to the tech guys at HQ they did all the cleaning they could, but I was amazed at how little they were actually able to do to the image through possibility of corrupting the evidence. I learned that even in near darkness they could determine the colour of a car by analyzing the colour reflections from the headlights, but even that was not accurate and only gave a basic indicator such as red, green or blue. I had to use another car of exactly the same model that was luckily parked up at the roadside on one shot to prove the car we were looking at was the same model. As for zooming in and seeing the number plate or even the drivers face; not a chance.

A further problem I faced was the time index on each individual camera was actually different. In order to prove that it was the same car from each camera and not two conveniently placed cars of the same make, model and colour travelling at high speed from the incident I had to work through every camera in real time to get the difference, and then had to do the same to our radio comms channel, the incident log and the Police national computer. Every single clock was different, including the watch on my arm and the only way to get a proper reading was to sit on the phone to the talking clock. Without going through the pains of calculating the differences, which took hours, the CCTV could have been inadmissible through doubt of worth. As investigations go it was extremely interesting and worthwhile in the end; however the question of proportionality to the offence has to be raised. Imagine having to do that for every incident, let alone having to view every tape in real time anyway.

I had a guy recently come into the station to ask advice with regard to damage to his car. It was parked in a bay and he new there was a council camera about 50 meters away that looks at it and wondered if the traffic department would seize the tape and view it to get a picture of the driver. I was honest with him and told him that they probably wouldn't, simply because CCTV is so over rated. Some record at only one frame every second - sometimes every 3 seconds - and the likelihood of actually getting the car, driver and registration number for insurance was incredibly slim. We filled the form out for him anyway, but I had to be realistic that the chances are he would be footing the bill himself unfortunately.

At incidents where you have different accounts of what has gone on you can use recorded CCTV to give an indicator as to who is telling the truth but without sound and live record, it is still not great and you can never get the nuances of body language on one frame a second video footage. There has never been a conviction based solely on CCTV evidence, there has always been some other corroboration so as the governments answer to solving crime it's not all it's hyped up to be. At nearly every incident I attend now we have people saying "the CCTV will prove it, go and watch it now" and to be honest the fact that there is CCTV everywhere (and thanks to TV programs) it gives the public an extremely unrealistic view on its evidential value and potential.

It's a very simple tool in the box, nothing more.



Anonymous said...

CCTV can be very effective in closed systems like London Underground though... If they could get to that standard in shopping centres and the like, that would be improvement, no?

Metcountymounty said...

CCTV is good IF - everything is the highest quality and recorded in real time and not one frame a second. The problem then comes to how you use it, the only way to store large amounts of data cheaply is digitally which is what all new CCTV systems are based on, however courts and CPS can't use it in any format other than good old fashioned 1970's VHS tape, so along with having to view it in real time, you have to record it in real time too because of the tape. Its great having an hours worth of CCTV on a disk, but if a judge wants to see it then you have to spend an hour copying it onto a costly second format.

As a live system it is brilliant, as an investigation tool you can get extra bits of evidence but as I said in the post, there are severe restrictions with how you can actually use it evidentially. The only way to get images that you could zoom into indefinitely as many people believe you can already, you'd be looking at images with hundreds of gigapixels, significantly larger in size and volume than we have now, you then have to store and use them.

The catch 22 of it is the more you put cameras up, the more coverage you have but the more evidence has to be seized for negative purposes (ie to show that there is nothing on it negating any possible alibi) which costs even more time and allocation of resources which could possibly be utilised elsewhere.

CCTV is by no means the be all and end all of crime fighting, having spent a huge amount of time on one case (and subsequently a 3 week trial in which my investigation to 3 days to cover and cross examine) for serious jobs like GBH/murder the CCTV trail must be enormous and it all costs in time and money, and then replicate that across all the jobs that happen in a year, the cost of CCTV in police time and the infrastructure behind it has to be in the tens of millions, for a system that is actually no where near as effective as the public think it is or believe it should be.

Stuart McIntyre said...

A similar thing to CCTV is the old traffic master system. (which read a number plate and messured the time it took to arrive somewhere) when this first went up the Goverment promesed that they would not use this information to "spy"

5 years later they silently start collecting the data so almost every journey you take is recorded by the goverment for the next 5 years.

Its a great way to invade your privicy and prove nothing.


For The People said...

Can always count on you for simular ideas!

Angry Rozzer said...


Again you hit the nail on the head. In my 9 years of Policing I think I've solved 1 crime with CCTV.

I always groan inwardly when allocated a crime because "CCTV is available".


On a side note, have you read about Norfolk Police Officers boycoting a vote on a new shift pattern that their chief is bringing in? Good on 'em I say! Fight the power!!

orac said...

You do know that the photographing of a dead man's eyes to see his killer is complete and utter tosh, don't you?

Metcountymounty said...

Orac, yes I do know that as the last image received by the cones and rods doesn't leave any form of cheminal trace or physical image however they didn't in the 1890's and thought it would be worthwhile giving it a try anyway.

Angry Rozzer, hadn't heard that, which pattern are they trying to bring in? one that gives no rest, family life or opportunity for overtime no doubt!

Noddy said...

I was also on the same tack recently, but used a different method to illustrate the pitfalls of CCTV.

I think it illustrates that CCTV is not the complete answer to understanding and solving a crime, you need the whole picture so to speak.

NyseriA said...

Oh well, I have had quite a few jobs whereby they have denied involvement or given no comment then when CCTV is disclosed and shown they have all gone, "ohh, that's not good!" and have coughed the lot.

Similarly, one of our PPO's is always getting caught on CCTV and is being charged (and then let out from court, his record last week, 2 hours from release from court to being back in custody for a theft of handbag!).

I'll have it that a lot of it is crap, but it's a tool that can work out but shouldn't be overrelyed upon.


Anonymous said...

Um, I suppose I can rant on about the + side of CCTV, as it pays my mortgage. However, it is as only as good as it's operators. It does not matter if it is SVHS or Broadcast Quality (That won't happen for a while) if the communication with the people on the ground (groan)and vice versa is not good. It does help if the 'customers' know if the area is actually in CCTV coverage for a start , and if they ask the operators if they are not sure. I feel that it would help if everyone involved could go to their local CCTV control room and see what is available. This should involve everyone from call takers onwards. If the Manager of the control room refuses for no good reason, you may have found your biggest problem...

Metcountymounty said...

anon above, we do have a really good CCTV control room where I am and we are visiting them all the time, mainly to drop off CD's for us to pick up later, but like you said it does help to know which part of the ground is covered and which isn't, as well as which operators know their stuff. Don't get me wrong, in the right hands in in the right situation it is invaluable. My gripe is the governments and a large majority of the publics view that just because you have a camera up, all crime is instantly solved and as an operator, you know that isn't the case by a long shot.

Angry Rozzer said...


Norfolk's chief wants to bin the 4 on, 4 off & go for 6 on, 2 off (8hour shift) or 6 on, 3 off (10 hour shift.

Talk about Hobson's choice!!

orac said...

so you don't like CCTV mostly because you personally find it difficult to use ?

Metcountymounty said...

When I used to work an 8 hour pattern I could guarantee three things - if anyone asked me how I was the answer would simply be knackered, I'd get to see my friends maybe once every 3 months if I was lucky and the wife would see me mainly asleep, and lastly at least 3-4 hours overtime every single shift which at least brought more money in but to be honest I would much rather have the time off.

If I was in their position I would seriously consider moving forces (having had our patter threatened I would move boroughs in a heart beat) if they bring the pattern change in, it's a false economy as the overtime budgets go through the roof, sickness goes up because no-one gets a proper break and people leave because they have no family life.

But hey, at least the public get a better service by lots of people who hate their lives.

Metcountymounty said...

yes orac thats right, I don't like it because I find it too difficult.

CCTV Camera said...

nice blog, good work, this is good blog for information about CCTV Camera. there are also given information about Security Camera.