Cameras in England focus unblinking "eyes" on crime prevention
Cameras in England focus unblinking "eyes" on crime prevention

Feb 1, 1997 12:00 PM

The Northampton Borough Council has established a network of CCTV cameras to focus on areas vulnerable to crime. Neighboring towns have followed suit. Thankfully, most citizens are law-abiding and care about their communities enough to want to create and keep safe neighborhoods. But crime and the fear of crime can affect how those citizens feel about walking on their streets day or night, shopping, parking their cars and sending their children on errands or out to play. Citizens are demanding that elected representatives and police do more to make communities safe.

England's city of Northampton sets a worthy community safety standard. The Northampton Borough Council, with the help of the Northamptonshire Police, local retailers, businesses and citizens, has established a network of CCTV cameras to focus on areas in the town center vulnerable to criminal activity. The cameras operate in all light levels. Some remain in fixed positions and some can pan, tilt and zoom as needed; all are connected to a central control room that records problems. If police response is needed, control room operators transmit information directly to the Northamptonshire Police sub-divisional control room.

The cameras monitor the town center 24 hours a day, seven days a week, covering the most vulnerable areas, including parking lots; the large, central city bus station; the enclosed Grosvenor Shopping Center; the shopping streets (some pedestrian-only); and vehicle traffic thoroughfares.

Managers from retail stores and other businesses promoted the CCTV project and launched a fund-raising campaign. The project is supervised by the Environment Services Directorate of the Northampton Borough Council. Firm Security Ltd. staffs the operations center. Rediffusion Communications designed, supplied and installed the CCTV cameras, monitors, recording and control facilities, and British Telecom provided the optical fiber network with 31 vision and associated control circuits.

Steve Priddis is Northampton's town center manager, a post akin to a city manager in the United States. He says the CCTV project has reduced vehicle offenses (car thefts and thefts from cars) and offenses against persons and property by 27 percent. The system has been in operation for more than two years, and there have been only four incidents of theft in the central parking lot.

Priddis points out that monitoring and recording have brought up concerns about evidence. If it is anticipated that a tape will be used as evidence, it is removed, sealed and logged, and an official statement is filed, which helps establish the continuity of evidence. System operators can be called to testify, if needed.

Operators can patch a screen's image directly to the central police station, and a hotline phone is available, so, in essence, operators and police can watch an incident unfold and decide whether to intervene.

Priddis says the system deters and displaces crime. He adds that Northampton's city neighbors, Wellingborough and Corby, have CCTV systems as well. Nearby Kettering has a system in its central shopping center. He cites an incident in which a suspect was spotted on camera in Northampton, but the suspect spotted the camera and moved on to Wellingborough and to Corby, only to see the cameras in place there, too. When he tried to commit his crime in Kettering, he chose the wrong location and was spotted again. So even if crime seems to be displaced, says Priddis, neighboring CCTV systems can also monitor someone trying to commit crimes. Beyond the obvious benefit of catching crooks, the CCTV system increases public confidence. Shoppers and strollers meander along city streets feeling safe under the watchful eye of the cameras.

Priddis says the cameras sometimes catch people waving at them. The CCTV system has also increased economic viability, says Priddis. Shoppers visit the downtown stores and the large market square where vendors set up stalls to sell their wares much as they did in days of yore. Some business owners are living above the shop, as safety increases and as funding grants encourage small business operators to convert upper floors into living space. There is less neglect in the town center and more day and night activity when people reside downtown, says Priddis.

Northampton is now extending community safety through expansion of the CCTV project to out-of-town retail centers, industrial centers and the British Rail station and parking lot.

Northampton's influence is spilling over to other cities anxious to provide more safety for residents, visitors and businesses. Thanks to public support and funding efforts, Norwich, England, is installing a complete CCTV system in the city center, which has mostly pedestrian traffic. As in Northampton and other cities with CCTV, Norwich saw rising crime rates and a lack of downtown traffic that gave the downtown a dangerous image. As in Northampton, the CCTV surveillance system has deterred crime and disorderly behavior and created a sense of security and well-being. It also helped detect and direct assistance to accidents and illness in the streets.

Maurice Morson, head of security at the University of East Anglia, and Norman Potter, businessman and chairman of the Norwich Crime Prevention Panel, spearheaded the CCTV project, along with the local police. They saw public opinion swing from its first stance of distrust and Big Brother fears to its current stance of enthusiasm for the project. People now feel their safety is better ensured, day and night. Downtown businesses feel their premises will be better protected with the CCTV system.

The Crime Prevention Panel is a group of local commerce, trade and professional associations, local government representatives, educational and social services and other citizens who meet regularly with representatives of the police to assist in the fight against escalating crime. In 1989, study of CCTV projects in cities such as nearby King's Lynn gave the panel an idea. City officials said the CCTV system brought a dramatic decline in crime rates. King's Lynn financed the system but recouped the funds from local taxes and businesses. Northampton's reports of an 80 percent decrease in car crime since installation of its CCTV system also inspired Norwich, as did CCTV success stories from the cities of Coventry, Bournemouth, Birmingham, Canterbury, Newcastle and Wolverhampton.

To introduce the idea to the Norwich public, the Crime Prevention Panel demonstrated CCTV with a camera affixed to the City Hall. Morson says the local newspaper, The Eastern Evening News, printed its articles with Spy in the Sky headlines, but refrained from partisan views. Instead, the paper conducted a public poll that showed overwhelming support for the project. The support has existed ever since.

Next came a prolonged period of pressure for the project by the Crime Prevention Panel, the media and the public, Morson says. The panel organized meetings and presentations and produced a film in which eight cameras depicted various locations. For funding, the City Council sought the help of the County Council. Politics came in at that point, says Morson, because the City Council was labor party controlled, while the County Council was of the opposing conservative party. Also hindering the project was a lack of firm financial commitment from the business community - those who would benefit directly from the CCTV project.

Morson explains the entire situation changed when the County Council lost its conservative majority and the new council decided to form a committee with the City Council to advance the cause of CCTV. In the meantime, the Home Office (the British federal government's domestic affairs office) pledged approximately $100,000 in funding, leaving it to Norwich, the county and businesses to fund the rest. The Home Office's pledge prompted even more interest and enthusiasm from citizens, the media and the business community. Potter says the Crime Prevention Panel was delighted the two councils worked in union toward setting up a system that has been proven time and time again to be required in Norwich.

Public reaction continues to be very supportive, even impatient, in establishing the central system and expanding it further, says Morson. This support has been reflected in Parliament. Prime Minister John Major has supported the project saying, I...reject outright the views of those people who claim that it is in some way OBig Brother.' The public rightly wants less crime, and closed-circuit television has an important part to play in achieving that. The Prime Minister says there is strong support in the Parliament and the community for anti-crime measures.

Patrick Thompson, member of Parliament for central Norwich, has pledged his support to the CCTV campaign: The evidence for the benefits of CCTV in city and town centers is overwhelming. For instance, the King's Lynn Borough Council in northwest Norfolk funded a CCTV scheme entirely from its own resources that led to an 85 to 94 percent reduction in crime levels in the monitored areas, without any subsequent dispersal of criminal activity to surrounding areas. This means that because the initial and understandable 'Big Brother' scares have been proven unfounded, CCTV has the general support of the government, local authorities and the bulk of the general public in Norwich.

Thompson says most of the debate and controversy in Norwich was about funding. The main problem has been the City Council's feeling that it is unfair that they shoulder the bulk of the cost, coupled with the fact that the Crime Prevention Panel had less power to lobby other potential sources of funding such as the County Council. This controversy has largely died down, and the problem of funding has been resolved by a grant to cover part of the cost from the Home Office. This has largely been achieved by persistent advertising of the benefits of CCTV at a local and national level.

Though the funding of crime prevention projects can be the bane of communities everywhere, Norwich proves even that hurdle can be overcome if the public exerts pressure for better security for themselves, their property and their community.

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