Delivering on CCTV cameras

June 2011 Surveillance, Retail (Industry)

The positioning of a camera or number of cameras is still seen by many users as a way to stop crime. The belief is that if a potential thief or hooligan sees the camera, they will be intimidated into not committing the criminal action.

While cameras do deter some people, clearly they do not stop crime. This is evidenced by the large number of incidents we see on camera, including those where the camera is clearly visible to the perpetrators. Indeed, an initial finding in the UK where cameras were installed in town centres was that drug dealers were dealing right underneath the camera pole, a situation only rectified when overlapping camera layouts was initiated.

There are a number of reasons that criminals ignore cameras. There is sometimes a perception, and rightfully so, that the cameras are just blank eyes and that nobody is watching them. In some cases, where criminals think that camera systems are actually operational, they are happy to ignore cameras because they either have confidence that they will not be recognised, or that nobody would actually take the trouble to follow up on them.

In other cases they feel they can just outsmart the operator even if they are looking. In one instance a shoplifter interviewed about his view on cameras indicated that he was going to grab the items and run if necessary so the camera would not do anything to stop him. Indeed, Professor Martin Gill in a UK conference I attended noted that, in his discussions with members of the prison population, one of them had stated that he “had never seen a camera jump off the wall and try and apprehend him”.

The emotional state of criminals at the time of the crime can also play a part. In some instances, people get so used to the cameras they forget that they are there. In others, behaviour can be so spontaneous that they do not think about the possibility of cameras until after they have committed the offence – an opportunity is seen and taken advantage of so quickly that the implications of the actions are not considered.

Where emotions are heightened in crimes or anger or passion, the emotional state is such that cameras do not even enter into any logical thinking. It is obviously difficult to address emotion-based crimes if no thought is given to the cameras. However, in a number of cases criminals test the systems deliberately and systematically to discover what they can get away with. In many of these instances, crime follows from a failure of cameras to lead to a response and have any kind of impact on their actions.

The people factor

It has been stated by various people that cameras on their own do not stop crime, rather people stop crime. The involvement of people can be seen as crucial in a number of areas:

1. Consideration of criminal strategies needs to be the driving force in designing a system rather than technical convenience. Technical installation is too often designed to meet its own end, for instance cameras are positioned close to a power source or for ease of cabling rather than where it would have the best view.

Consideration also needs to be given not only to the coverage of the camera, but the criminal’s approach to the site and how the criminal may try and take avoiding actions. The importance of the design of a multiple camera approach where cameras complement each other and are aligned to address and anticipate potential criminal strategy is critical. Combining fixed and PTZ or high-speed domes, standard cameras and infrared or thermal, overt and covert cameras, and live monitoring and alarm triggered combinations can deliver much more to your system if they form part of a coherent strategy to address potential criminal threats.

2. The expected use of a recorded image in evidence and investigations should be paramount – this requires a recording system that provides accessible and usable quality images when footage needs to be retrieved. All too often I have seen quality camera views initially displayed in a control room virtually mangled by poor recording systems where frame rates, compression, or resolution is sacrificed to create lots of recording time, but unrecognisable people and features. In some instances, I have known of security departments who refuse to make their footage available outside of the department because the quality is so poor. The impact of this kind of approach on the perception of the camera system is immediately obvious.

3. Camera incidents to be followed up with actions. The response to an observed incident is key to the impact of CCTV. Seeing people walk off with your goods and not being able to do anything about it defeats the objective of the system and is frankly a waste of money. The criminals will obviously return for more at a later stage believing they will be unchallenged. Yet the response function and their relationship to the CCTV control room is often a neglected part of security, and response times are not seen as part of the performance requirement. Effective response is as critical as the initial picture gathering in the first place.

4. Even where CCTV is largely for review purposes, the members of the company or public need to see a result. In the case of a robbery the chance of the robbers getting away from the scene is high. Yet follow up on using the footage to track down and convict the perpetrators is usually negligible and police approaches can be part of this problem. Criminals will only be deterred by CCTV if they expect a negative consequence to result from their actions being viewed. If they start finding people chasing them, their faces in the news, and rewards being offered for their identity they will start seeing the implications of their actions. The pursing and prosecution of criminals in some sectors of the retail industry is something that needs to be emulated more widely.

5. Live surveillance is important because it means that you can do something about the event there and then. Systems that allow review and follow up have a role, but if you can stop something from happening by viewing it live and responding, it has a real and immediate impact. The emphasis in this respect is on prevention, detection and capture. Yet many of the personnel who are in CCTV positions are never effectively screened for their suitability or receive training in surveillance. Put simply, the human capacity to fulfil the camera potential is simply not there.

Finally, we cannot expect that by putting in hundreds of cameras and having one person track them all we are having a major impact on crime. Quite simply, it is likely there are untold numbers of incidents happening in front of cameras all over the world that no one is aware of, and that will never be reported on. If there is a growing belief that cameras do not work, we can expect to find a public backlash against the cost and privacy implications, something that people in town centre CCTV functions in the UK are constantly aware of. Effective human and management strategies to make sure the potential of cameras are realised are necessary for the industry as well as our clients.

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


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