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CCTV Tenth Birthday

by msecadm4921

You could tell the Cambridge City Council CCTV operators from the guests by the operators’ uniform of dark short-sleeved polo shirts and trousers, and city council name badges.

We were watching CCTV footage on a flat screen on a mantlepiece, in a ground floor room of Cambridge’s Guildhall. Outside the window, the citizens and tourists were going about their business. Yet on this screen, we saw another darker side to the city. One were amusing: a woman wearing a traffic cone on her head, swirling in the street. Mostly, it was in the small hours in the city centre, women scrapping with women, handbags and hair-pulling, men swinging at women, men swinging at men and kicking a man when he’s down. A bare-chested man at Magdalene Bridge taking the rest of his clothes off and jumping in the river. A pair of men, after a third man walks to the side with a camera or camera-phone at the ready, in tandem run at a parked taxi and run over it, running away as the taxi driver gets out.

Some footage was in daylight: a man with his back to the shopping street urinating against a wall; a pair of men on a punt mucking about ending with one jumping into the river. One incident you could put down to high spirits: two people riding bicycles in the city centre, wearing only one backpack between them. As arguably one of the most famed university cities in the world, you might expect student antics. On one CCTV camera pole earlier I had seen a sticker from the Anarchist Federation ( But such footage is no different from any UK town and city; CCTV manager Martin Beaumont later said to me that if anything Cambridge is better when it comes to such late-night drunken disorder. As Martin and the city mayor Jenny Bailey made speeches it occurred to me that besides the prosperous city I had walked around that morning there was the disturbing late-night city that good folk early to bed never see; and that this was a low-key but astute piece of awareness-raising by the CCTV operation. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the system, and the presentation of badges for staff who have completed three months of operations. The mayor in a short speech made plain the crime prevention and more general city management points of the public space CCTV. Operators look out for people who fall ill, or young children or the elderly: "As a parent of teenagers I know when they go into the city centre they will be safe, because of the CCTV." And the mayor pointed to another personal connection, with the CCTV’s system’s redeployable camera: as a ward councillor, she liked to know that if there were a problem, the cameras could be ‘booked’, though her ward is outside the system’s fixed cameras.

When the presentations were done and the refreshments and tables were cleared – by some of the operators, I noted – my first question to Martin was about the awareness-raising. To myself I thought that it did no harm to remind the mayor and other decision-makers that the CCTV was there. And Martin said much the same: "The idea is just to remind people that you are there … for example when you ask for extra money on a budget, it gives you a bit more leverage; so it’s just about keeping yourself bubbling along." Martin added that his aim was to get publicity in the local media once every three months; yet, it occurred to me, you can only sell yourself if you have something genuinely to sell. We were interrupted by Martin asking that some of the trays of food not eaten at the lunch to go to reception and elsewhere in the building (and on my way to the control room later, I saw a tray outside building services, and much later wished I’d stuck one in my pocket for the train home).

Next I asked about the eye-opening footage. Martin said: "Crime is happening everywhere. Sometimes it’s useful to show people what that crime really is, because if someone says ‘he was punched and kicked’, and if you show how they were punched and kicked, because some of those people are vicious." Martin did add that virtually everything shown to the luncheon resulted in arrests; an important point because the footage was edited so as not to show the police intervening. Earlier, I had had the impression from the snippets that the police were nowhere. I asked about Martin’s CCTV control room’s text service, whereby anyone can text operators about something they feel the CCTV ought to look into. I mentioned some bus operators have set up similar text services, whereby travellers can text incidents, Travel West Midlands even printing thousands of Safer Travel leaflets in Urdu. Martin replied that the council has distributed 100,000 business cards to every home in Cambridge, Ely and Soham, via electoral post. Also 1000 posters went out. "And we will do it again in September when the new students come, because it’s something you have to keep reminding people."

What changes over the ten years has the system seen? "I think the fundamentals are still the same. We are now much more efficient, because we are much more professional; and that comes with experience." Obviously, Martin added, technology keeps racing forward, but public space CCTV not just in Cambridge has gained expertise. What did Martin foresee? There’s talk of congestion charges, for one thing, so potentially there’s a lot of business. "We try to plan seven to ten years in advance, and we are already starting our next phase, looking at where technology is going to be, making sure we have the money to put there, and making sure we have got our eye on the business side, to try and get more income." Talking of income, isn’t that the $64,000 question? I asked.

Martin replied: "I don’t think CCTV is ever going to make a profit; you try to break even. At the moment 51 per cent of our running costs are actually paid for by external customers in monitoring fees. And hopefully at some point we will hit break-even." Those external customers are others in the public sector such as Ely-based East Cambridgeshire District Council. What about talking CCTV? Briefly, the then Home Secretary John Reid hailed it, trialled in Middlesbrough and rolled out to 20 other places in England. Featured in the May 2007 issue of Professional Security, it’s public space CCTV with loud-speakers so that operators can speak to passers-by to pull them up about littering, or other bad behaviour. Martin said: "We are not even going there. I think there are major potential problems. I don’t think it is a CCTV operator’s place to be disciplining members of the public. What do you do if the person sticks two fingers up to you? What sanctions have you got? The potential for things like accusations of abusive behaviour, abusive language, sexist, racist language, it’s all there. And quite frankly we don’t want to be anywhere near it. We are certainly not looking at introducing it."

Martin took me then to the control room in the Guildhall basement, through an access-controlled door, which closed before the next door, to create the air-lock effect. I forgot to count the number of monitors – I would estimate 30 – that are on one wall and along part of another, making an L-shape. That’s mirrored in the operator desks. Each desk has a pair of flat-screen monitors. A large flat screen on the monitor wall is to show the text messages from the public. Martin left me in the hands of one of the supervisers, Andy Fleming. The system is going from VCR recording – giving one image every couple of seconds – to digital recording, which gives five or six frames per second. ""It’s made such a difference, it’s transformed what we do," Andy enthused. "We’re very pleased." He showed me around behind the monitor wall – the Synectics control equipment, for instance. Of the 162 cameras, 144 run over fibre optic cable, and 16 by radio signal. "Of those 16, a dozen are in permanent locations, they are just in areas where we needed extra cameras and the signals from those are generally quite reliable, because they don’t move." The four redeployable cameras normally work in pairs. "The signal on those isn’t always brilliant, because it does depend on the siting. We are fortunate that Cambridge is quite flat, so it isn’t too much of a problem getting the signal back." One place Cambridge likes to put the redeployables is the city’s parks, but that’s stymied when the trees are in full leaf.

Back in the control room proper, Andy showed on one monitor the camera on the corner of Sidney and Market streets. Most of the city centre’s cameras are of the shoebox type. Andy showed how many of the cameras inter-lock, which helps to deter bicycle thieves, a particular problem in a place with so many cycle riders. If thieves see a PTZ camera pointing at a cycle rack, it may deter a crime. If the shoebox tilts away, the thief may not realise that a nearby interlocking camera is keeping an eye on the same cycle rack. Andy showed too Midsummer Common, a big flat green space with no public lighting, a thoroughfare for walkers. Hence the camera, Andy showed me, has infra-red lighting. Similarly Parker’s Piece, that in summer may have foreign students sitting in groups and barbecuing until 2am or 3am. Andy described the sort of incoming texts: texters may well have called police too, or it’s the kind of anti-social behaviour that police might not attend in a hurry. Say if there’s quad-bikers or motorcyclists on a park, if the CCTV control room can show police images, that may help the police to decide to respond faster. Or, a peculiarity of Cambridge is the ‘punt touts’, like ticket touts, only young people each with a clipboard trying to sell people a punt on the Cam. Only the last five digits of the text number are on view to operators. Andy added that the text number – 62288 – is similar to a TV cookery show, because around 5pm texts will arrive saying ‘rhubarb crumble’. Besides the four workstations, there’s a desk and monitor to one side, for reviewing footage almost as soon as an incident is recorded and reported, if required.

Next, PC Mark Arnold booted up his computer in his evidence review room. Requests come to him from every part of the force for footage. Now while, as he says, civilians may do this task in other control rooms, he can argue for a dedicated police officer doing the task. He’s been the CCTV liaison officer since 2003. The mayor earlier presented him too with a badge, though he isn’t an operator, as recognition. As a result of his work, as the mayor said, viewings rose from 960 in 2003-4 to 1578 in 2006-7. He’s done more than 2500 viewings, saving the police force thousands of hours in officer time, and travelling expenses. Mark explained later: say there are several incidents in Soham that can require CCTV footage; and say there are three police officers – the nearest station is in Ely – on the cases. If all three officers came to Cambridge control, that might mean 60 miles of travel. He will burn two discs of footage – one a master that doesn’t leave the control room, and a copy to go to the officer in the case. He takes care to include footage from perhaps five minutes before and ten minutes after the incident. That is, it’s to head off a solicitor who might try to make a claim to save his client. In other words, with experience Mark is able to find someone in a street, and track them backwards and forwards in time and space. As a police officer, he knows what sort of footage a colleague would want, to prove or indeed disprove an offence. There has been cases when Mark has rung a custody suite to say that the wrong people have been locked up. Plainly through experience Mark has become able to pick up what’s happening in a street scene, what is likely to happen next, and what cameras to look at too. Because one camera may show for instance a man raising their fists, but another camera may show another angle – perhaps that the man is facing five assailants. Having learned what solicitors may demand, there’s more chance that the CCTV liaison officer can get the footage right first time, which means fewer delays in court.

Let the last word of the day though go to Councillor Jenny Bailey, the mayor, who recalled how the CCTV system opened on July 26, 1997, viewed by some with caution. But the open way it’s been run, the excellent publicity and training, any reservations have been overcome. A huge majority of people regard CCTV not as an intrusion on their privacy, but an ‘extremely positive feature, enabling them to carry out their day to day lives’. Some 9000 people, including the mayor, have visited the control room. The original 31-cameras and six operators have become 162, and 12. The operators have searched for 4423 missing people. Some 7362 offenders have been arrested by police as a result of CCTV, and a further 5914 have received a caution, words of warning or a fixed penalty notice. And as the mayor said, those numbers are rising.

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