The psychological impact of CCTV

September 2014 Surveillance

Organisations will typically implement CCTV as a technical solution to risk and other factors. However, it is in fact, primarily a psychological solution. Even the extent of risk protected against is a psychological evaluation – there is always a cost benefit outcome analysis for any technical specification. So what is the psychological impact?

Typically, we probably see that CCTV is seen as a deterrent to criminals – in other words it is to intimidate criminals so they are more concerned about not being caught for the cameras. Yet a frequent criminal response is to test the capabilities of the systems in various ways to evaluate where, what, when and how things are being seen. The amount of video we gather that shows people stealing clearly indicates that the camera system alone is not effective as a deterrent. The strategies to implement surveillance, detection rates, and response time among others are all the real psychological deterrents. In a way, we can see what is working best by how criminals have to adjust their techniques of theft, the scope of action they retain to commit offences, and hopefully lowered costs. The less leeway the CCTV system provides and the more people get detected trying to overcome the surveillance strategy, the better its long term psychological effect. That is why using surveillance as a way of seeing any contraventions of procedures or rules within the organisation and acting on these has a potential impact on best practice to make sure they are followed and for letting people know the system is watching them. Management who allow repeated violations of procedure and poor practice undermine the very psychological impact a CCTV system is supposed to have.

The other popular reason CCTV is implemented is to create a sense of well being and safety for consumers within an environment, typically a retail, travel or hospitality environment. The fact that there are cameras there is seen to create a sense that surveillance is always present and makes people feel protected. Unfortunately, most consumers find out how well a systems works after being a victim of crime, when they are following up on the video evidence about what happened. While this does produce some kind of psychological closure – seeing who the suspect was and how the crime happened, unfortunately for the victims it doesn’t deliver the promised sense of initial reassurance they once had. They are also likely to talk about it to other consumers or the media which may show just how poor the system is. This is an ongoing issue with minor crime. However, the impact of an armed robbery on a retail institution can have a major effect on subsequent customer use and income, often shown in the levels of advertising afterwards trying to regain trust and affiliation of the customers. Catching people afterwards who have been spotted committing the theft on review of footage is often a futile effort and has little impact on psychological well being of customers. The best way of providing psychological value is to ensure that people are warned beforehand or where actions are made to stop the potential incident before it happens. Where crime happens, aggressively pursuing perpetrators using information gathered so they never feel comfortable they have got away with it is the next best thing so criminals are aware there consequences to their actions and customers believe organisations are committed to action.

What we often don’t think of is that the camera systems are often for the psychological benefit of the managers of the organisation as much as anybody else. Having committed to having a set of cameras installed, managers can then relax and say they have done everything that they could have to prevent or reduce crime. Interestingly enough, this psychological impact on managers is perhaps the greatest danger to the effectiveness of CCTV. This isn’t necessarily the case where management have a comprehensive and effective strategy in place. However, the false sense of security that accompanies an installation that the manager doesn’t realise is poor, ineffective, or unsuited to an operation until proved otherwise opens up untold opportunities to criminals. Where the type of loss is difficult to establish, it also creates a situation where criminals may steal on an ongoing basis from organisations who think there are secure.

You need an approach that can quantify the potential loss to the organisation and the impact that surveillance systems can have on the bottom line. The surveillance strategy goes beyond the cameras to the way they are implemented, viewed and responded to which requires expert help and possibly a human factors audit. The capacity to actually anticipate and prevent, or catch the perpetrator in the action of a crime through training of personnel is essential, and follow up response is a necessary component of having any kind of system. Recorded video can be used to obtain information for investigations, highlighting of surveillance needs, and identifying suspect targets for the future, but the best psychological impact a CCTV system can have for all parties is to detect potential or actual crime and take action that addresses the psychological impact of all concerned in the best available manner. This psychological impact revolves around the conviction of people that the surveillance strategy works.

Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on +27 (0)11 787 7811 or craig.donald@leaderware.com



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