CCTV and Crime Reduction

Posted on November 25, 2008

The Role of CCTV Surveillance Systems in Reducing Crime in Town Centres


The use of closed – circuit television (CCTV) surveillance systems to curtail burgeoning crime rates in the United Kingdom has resulted in the rapid proliferation of such systems in almost all town centres in the country, making it practically ubiquitous. This system was first established in Bournemouth town centre in 1985 and according to Armstrong and Norris (1999), following that 300000 cameras where installed annually (cited by Davies & Thasen, 2000). Consequently, “…the citizenry of the UK have become the most watched, catalogued and categorized people in the advanced world” (Coleman, 2004, p. 3).

The rapid proliferation of CCTV is largely on account of the faith reposed in its ability to reduce crime by the government and the majority of its citizens. In the words of Alun Michael, Minister of State:
“The advantages of CCTV, properly managed, speak for themselves: crime prevention, the deterrent effect of knowing that there is observation, the alerting of police at an early stage to stop dangerous situations escalating, the operational assistance to the police in sizing up a situation, the safer convictions that can be obtained – and, above all, the fact that people’s confidence is renewed, which has led to many town centres being revitalized” (cited by Goold, 2004, p. 1).
Despite such overwhelming enthusiasm, critics have pointed out that there is little concrete scientific evidence that proves the positive effect of CCTV surveillance systems in reducing crime. Therefore an evaluation of the exact role of CCTV in reducing crime in town centres is called for as it will provide a comprehensive analysis of the existing situation and help ascertain the future of such systems in the fight against crime.

CCTV Surveillance Systems

These systems usually consist of cameras with monitors and video recorders. The cameras may be fixed or they may literally have a roaming eye. Nowadays, cameras have sophisticated features like pan, tilt and zoom which may be used as per the need. Images may thus be captured and stored and retrieved anytime in the future. The quality of the equipment used is a chief determinant of efficiency and outcomes. It also follows that the more cameras are used the more security is afforded, as a larger area comes under scrutiny. Positioning is also important in providing maximum security. All these factors need to be taken under consideration while installing the CCTV surveillance system. The efficient working of these systems is subject to variations. Sometimes the cameras are allowed to do the job as everything will be recorded and particular incidents can be viewed based on the offences that have been perpetrated. At other times surveillance takes place round the clock and the monitored images are viewed constantly by hired staff or police operators. When incidents of crime are reported, police are able to rush to the scene as quickly as possible, and they will have access to pertinent information that will enable them to narrow down the list of suspects and give them a head start on the investigation.

In this respect, Gill and Hemming (2006) stress the importance of planning and design for purposes of maximum efficiency. The positioning of the cameras is vital, and it should be such that it allows for maximum coverage of the area that is under surveillance. Due considerations must be given to lighting as otherwise, images are likely to be blurred and grainy making positive identification extremely difficult. The manner in which the system is operated also determines outcomes. Operators must be trained to extract the best possible results from such a system and the element of human fallibility must be taken into consideration and sufficient measures must be taken to counter it.

CCTV and Crime

CCTV came to be closely associated with crime following the infamous James Bulger murder case (cited by Goold, 2004; Newburn & Hayman 2002; Coleman & Norris, 2000). CCTV had captured images of the toddler being led away by ten – year olds Thompson and Venables and in the aftermath of the killing the images sent shockwaves rippling through the world and strengthened the position of CCTV as a crime fighting tool. The images did little to prevent the heinous crime but it did prove useful in identifying the perpetrators. For the first time government officials as well as the majority of the populace sensed that CCTV could be a powerful weapon against crime. And the muted arguments against its use on the grounds of civil liberty and a right to privacy were silenced.

Before evaluating the effectiveness of CCTV in reducing crime, it is necessary to understand the theory behind its use. According to Weiss, one of the types of crime prevention has particular relevance with regard to the use of CCTV – “Primary Crime Prevention is focussed on the offence rather than the offender, and is often associated with situational crime prevention strategies which focus on the immediate and localised context of the offence” (cited by Coleman & Norris, 2000, p. 146). This type of crime prevention is based on rational choice theory and assumes that the individuals most likely to commit crimes are the ones who believe that they can get away with it. Thus by employing CCTV, the confidence of aspiring criminals is shaken as they are cognizant of the fact that they may be apprehended or they may feel the  cameras are watching their every move , and are loathe to risk capture and consequently they may refrain from committing the crime. Criminal recklessness is replaced by fear. As Tilley (1993) puts it, “CCTV could reduce crime by increasing the likelihood that present offenders will be caught, stopped, removed, punished and therefore deterred” (cited by Gill & Spriggs, 2005, p. 7). Thus when used in this particular context, CCTV seeks to reduce the opportunity to commit crime and thereby deter the potential criminal, by increasing the chances of getting caught.

Situational prevention can also cause a reduction of crime, by means of diffusion of benefits. According to Clarke and Weisburd (1994), “The term refers to the fact that situational prevention can often bring about reductions in crime beyond the immediate focus of the measures introduced” (cited by Clarke, 2005, p. 52). This additional benefit was demonstrated with regard to the use of CCTV in a case described by Poyner (1991), where CCTV cameras used to prevent theft in the car park at the University of Surrey not only reduced theft in the three areas being monitored, but in one not under surveillance (cited by Clarke, 2005, p.52).

Considerable publicity was generated for CCTV surveillance systems following the identification and successful capture of dangerous criminals. CCTV footage helped in the capture of two men who had planted a bomb outside the Harrod’s department store in London (cited by Coleman & Norris, 2000, p.150). In another highly publicised case, another London bomber was identified using images captured on CCTV (cited by Norris, 2003, p. 260). These cases served as examples for other criminals and served to deter them to an extent. Because of the large – scale installation of CCTV in town – centres everywhere, more effort had to go into planning crimes and to escape the watchful eye of the camera. Moreover, people tended to be more cautious and stick to areas under surveillance in order to decrease their vulnerability as victims. People also started to feel more secure in their newly protected environments. All these factors served to deter criminals at least theoretically and offered a positive scope for reducing crime.

The Effectiveness of CCTV in Reducing Crime

The theoretical possibilities for CCTV as a means of reducing crime appeared optimistic, however with regard to practical application the use of CCTV has fallen far short of expectations. Brown conducted a study on the use of CCTV in the town centres of Newcastle, Birmingham and King’s Lynn. According to Goold (2004, p. 37), He “concluded that CCTV is generally much more effective at reducing property – related crime than it is at combating problems associated with anti – social behaviour and public order”. It must be conceded that CCTV does help the police in gathering evidence but as a deterrent to crime it is something of a failure. Hardened criminals can easily work their way around the surveillance, by simply altering their appearance, preventing the camera from getting a good shot of their face or relying on the operators to notice nothing untoward or suspicious. The latter is a good possibility as most operators find continuous monitoring of the screens a monotonous and trying chore and are likely to be slipshod in their task. Thus Brown’s study is discouraging with regard to the use of CCTV in town centres as a means of reducing crime.

While many have pointed to the use of CCTV as a means of providing security and a feeling of safety to citizens who fear the rising rates of crime, the role of CCTV in actually alleviating fear is questionable. In fact, contemporary studies have concluded that there is little evidence to suggest that CCTV reduces fear of crime or crime itself (Gill & Spriggs, 2005).  People who were unafraid in the first place are likely to report that they are not scared, while others continue to feel threatened. It may even have the counter effect of exacerbating fear and contributing to the waves of panic that often grip the populace, following particularly gruesome crimes. The cameras take on a menacing air as they stand tribute to the rising rates of crime and the perceived helplessness of the police. As Ellin (1996) puts it, increased CCTV surveillance can “also contribute to accentuating fear by increasing paranoia and distrust among people” (cited by Fyfe & Bannister, 1998, p. 256). This pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and ill – feeling is itself conducive to crime as it serves to ferment  all the noxious elements that facilitate it.

A study conducted in the town centre of Sutton by Sarno (1995) was initially encouraging (cited by Fyfe and Bannister, 1998, p. 262) as it showed a reduction in crime rate by 20 per cent in the two months following the installation of CCTV. But unfortunately it was revealed that crime had merely been displaced to areas that were not under surveillance. This finding is particularly disturbing as it seems to imply that CCTV surveillance systems merely give the impression of reducing crime, while indirectly leading to its increase under a false cover of security. While displacement is one of the problems that stems from the use of CCTV, it does not always occur and it can be countered by undertaking suitable measures.

It is believed that CCTV surveillance is invaluable to the criminal investigator, as it is possible to identify perpetrators from the video footage. However the actual procedure is far more complicated and calls for plenty of man – power, entails hours and hours of sifting through multitudes of videotapes and finally careful analysis of the footage is called for before the identity of the criminal can be established. This is painstaking labour and often, owing to the amount of time that elapses in the course of the procedure, the criminal remains loose on the street, and is at liberty to wreak havoc on innocent citizens. Furthermore in recent times it has been determined that the cumbersome process of identification using CCTV is susceptible to error and inaccuracy. According to Davies and Thasen (2000, p. 412), “a series of studies by Bruce and colleagues has reported high rates of failure to identify targets from CCTV footage”. Consequently, convictions secured solely on the basis of CCTV footage have been questioned. This was apparent in the case of R versus Church (1995), reported by Braman (1999), where  the accused was convicted on the strength of the physical resemblance between him and the suspect caught on tape. Experts in image processing were able to overturn the verdict during the appeal. At the retrial the experts for the prosecution once again succeeded in getting a conviction (cited by Davies & Thasen, 2000, p. 424). Thus such legal wrangling reduces the credibility of CCTV in securing convictions and thereby reducing crime.

Some studies pertaining to the role of CCTV in reducing crime have yielded positive results. Armitage et al (1999) found a sustained reduction of crime rates by 25 per cent  in Burnley; moreover, there was no sign of displacement (cited by Coleman & Norris, 2000, p. 167).  Similarly Short and Ditton (1995) reported a 21 per cent decrease in crime at Airdrie and again there was no evidence of displacement (cited by Coleman & Norris, 2000, p. 167). Studies such as these reveal that with proper implementation CCTV surveillance systems may prove to be effective in reducing crime. But in light of the majority of studies showing ambiguous or downright negative results, the role of CCTV in fighting crime remains questionable.

While the effectiveness of CCTV in reducing crime in town centres may be deemed a failure, it remains a fact that CCTV surveillance is more effective under particular circumstances than in others. In general crimes which occur at the spur of the moment that are prompted by violent outbursts of passion or fuelled by excess alcohol are less likely to be reduced than crimes that are planned with any degree of precision. Consequently it is harder for this system to actually reduce violence but crimes such as theft may be deterred. According to Gill and Hemming (2006, p. 35), “impulse crimes such as alcohol – related crimes were less likely to be reduced than premeditated crime such as theft. Violence against the person rose and theft of motor vehicles fell in the majority of projects”. Thus there is scope for CCTV to serve effectively in the fight against crime, in certain contexts.


CCTV may not be able to reduce crime or even deter criminals; however it may used effectively to target specific offences. There is no doubt that it is a powerful and innovative weapon in the police arsenal and it may be employed to monitor town centres and help in controlling crime and upholding the letter of the law.

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