Leveraging wide-area CCTV evidence

July 2017 Editor's Choice, Surveillance

CCTV coverage across buildings, city blocks, cities and even intercity camera footage is being used increasingly to deal with major crime or terror violations in the UK. I use the term ‘wide-area CCTV’ to describe this.

At a UK CCTV User Group conference in May, a counter-terrorism police office spoke in depth about how CCTV was used to track the killer of an elderly Imam and the bomber of three mosques. Ironically, the night before the presentation was the time of the suicide bombing at the Manchester concert. The same CCTV techniques would have been immediately applied to that case, as the UK police strategy to pursue terrorists at all parts of the social spectrum is based on the same CCTV review strategy.

What stands out about the presentation was the way in which the UK police can systematically make use of CCTV evidence over an extended area, systematically working out the movements of a person over areas and time. Recent subsequent terror events confirmed the effectiveness of their police performance in this regard.

The crime scene is obviously a major area of focus, but the investigation gets expanded to the approach of the suspect to the crime scene as well as leaving. Contrasts in what they are wearing or carrying and the nature of the goods are reviewed. All of these become clues for further CCTV pursuit.

In the case of the Imam murder, CCTV was used to identify the route the person took to the scene, things like buying tickets for the bus, footage waiting for the bus and on the bus to identify the suspect, the subsequent town area that he then moved through after the bus ride, to the route that was taken to the area where he stayed. Shops that he went into were also reviewed, and where he purchased certain components of the bombs were also identified. A similar process with the Manchester suspect was also used, where police quickly released video pictures of where the suspect had purchased items used, even to the clothing that he was wearing when doing so and how it was consistent with the evidence remaining after the bomb blast.

This is not a new thing in the UK, possibly based on the fact that the country has faced one of the most sustained experiences of terrorism in the world. From IRA bombings years ago, and from the 1999 case of the Brixton Bomber, David Copeland who set off three bombs killing three people and injuring many, CCTV has been used systematically by the UK police. In the case of the Brixton Bomber, a bag logo viewed from within a store at the first site was used to define height and clothing, including a cap that was subsequently identified in the second bombing, leading to a positive identification.

It is also not a process that is defined by terrorism. Many town centres in the UK plot out both public and private camera coverage to assist in the tracking and apprehension of crime suspects. While control rooms in town centres in the UK are often relatively understaffed compared to sites in South Africa, for example, the forensic capacity of police to follow up and track suspects is probably the best in the world. Police are analysing the suspects’ activities, associations and potential involvement from days before the incident actually occurred.

This is not limited to the UK. Counties like Australia have followed a similar path, with a project called Blue Iris in Perth city centre where all parties with CCTV cameras in the city centre register camera coverage which can be used for police investigations.

The systematic use of CCTV evidence is aimed not just to identify people at the crime scene, if this is possible, but to follow and build clues around identity, location, and a profile of the person. Ultimate identification of the person may happen in another city based on CCTV tracking follow through. The objective is to identify and make the most of anything about the person, and to building a chain of evidence which is going to be as robust as possible. What it means for criminals or terrorists is that identity, activities and associates may be identified by actions hours or even days before the criminal action. It also means that profiling of suspects is maximised to get every last scrap of information available and leverage this in an investigation.

In the South African scenario, we have a glaring absence of any systematic use of wider CCTV information by almost all parties. One of the common activities by UK police when looking at a crime scene is to immediately start looking for cameras that can be used. While crime site information is generally used and looked at in South Africa, extending to a wider framework of CCTV coverage in the community and other information is typically neglected. This is obviously a manpower intensive operation and certainly not all crimes can be subject to such thorough investigation.

Casinos are possible an exception. Even since using VCRs, casinos systematically reconstruct crime behaviour and actions of suspects on site, potentially creating a narrative of people moving from activity to activity after a major crime or scam. Yet casinos and sites such as shopping centres and major banks operate in an extended community and can work with such communities with mutual benefits in a wide-area surveillance network.

We have seen some use of widespread surveillance gathering such as toll booth stations and cellphone tracking in dealing with crime, but the use of CCTV has typically fallen short. The use of wide-area surveillance promises potential for not just tracking and follow-up after crimes, but used live, offers the potential for forewarning based on things like number plate recognition or facial recognition of known suspects. It offers a major potential tool that can be used to reduce crime, and something to make it very difficult for criminals to hide.

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 [email protected]


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