CCTV In Australia: A Sense Of Possibility Or A Noble Lie?

CCTVIn early May, urban CCTV cameras owned and managed by Shoalhaven Council were switched off when the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal found their operation breached the Privacy Act. The Tribunal also found that Council had not shown the camera operation was reasonably necessary to prevent crime. Within hours, bipartisan political support of CCTV as a crime prevention and prosecutorial tool was placed on record at all three tiers of government. Four days after the Tribunal’s decision, the New South Wales Premier announced legislation would be amended and on 17 May, two weeks after the Tribunal’s decision,
the ‘loophole’ was closed. This quick reaction should be no surprise.

The last 20 years have seen almost exponential growth of publically-owned and funded CCTV systems which aim to reduce crime in urban public spaces. The expanding infrastructure and the ongoing operations of these systems are funded by tax payers and rate payers, yet there is little focus on evaluating the effectiveness of these systems. This was highlighted in the recent decision by the Tribunal, and was not addressed in Premier O’Farrell’s response. Instead, the Premier’s statement invoked high-profile cases solved with the assistance of CCTV, and announced regulatory exemptions would ensure councils could continue to operate CCTV cameras. Again, this reflects usual political practice.

Since John Howard, political leaders from both major sides flatly declare that CCTV works. This is despite inconsistent evidence regarding effects on crime rates and an astonishing lack of research into the complexities of open-space, urban CCTV systems and their place as a crime prevention tool. For example, there is a paucity of Australian evidence on good practice in CCTV management and operations, no systematic research integrating the theoretical domains of CCTV effectiveness, little research into how these domains link with council-led, holistic community safety networks, no public research into efficiency dividends to police through use of CCTV, and no economic analysis of the cost effectiveness or benefits to the community.

Since 2007, the Commonwealth’s Safer Suburbs program has funded over $15.9 million for CCTV cameras in 29 local government areas, two States and two chambers of commerce. A new round of funding for CCTV cameras and related community safety projects is currently open as part of the Government’s National Crime Prevention Fund. That fund currently has a budget of $40 million, and while not all of the budget is allocated to CCTV, installation of CCTV infrastructure is emphasised in the guidelines. The Federal Coalition has pledged $50 million to a policy emphasising CCTV.

Figures for State government spend on CCTV cameras are more difficult to find. In 2011, the Victorian Government granted a total of $1.075 million for CCTV-badged projects, with 67 new cameras being installed in six Victorian councils. A current round of grants are currently being assessed, with an additional $19 million budgeted for provision of public safety infrastructure, particularly CCTV cameras. According to the Queensland Information Commissioner, Queensland government agencies use more than 20,000 cameras to monitor people in public spaces, and NSW Rail alone has more than 9,700 security cameras.

The CCTV managers of many local councils with whom I have spoken spend upward of $1 million a year to operate these systems. They all have anecdotes of a life saved. They also all acknowledge the importance of their CCTV operations in assisting police in investigations and prosecutions. Some of the managers explicitly note the cost shifting from the criminal justice system on to local government, and feel it is worthwhile as “we are all on the same side”. Police across the nation emphatically commend the efficiency of CCTV.

The past two decades has seen few Australian studies into community attitudes toward CCTV. Where available, they have reflected the consistent straw polls in newspapers, which claim that the vast majority of people want CCTV, or at least feel its benefits outweigh its intrusiveness. Presumably this is why politicians can comfortably claim that CCTV works, and keep pumping money into it. All the focus is on infrastructure, with funding guidelines paying to install ever more cameras and upgrade backend information and communications technology. Crumbs around the funding edges focus on evaluation of coarse-level outcomes, or refining ways to specifically use CCTV as a crime prevention tool.  For example, I have been unable to find any funding round guidelines evaluating the integration of CCTV into community crime prevention frameworks. Presumably this has been due to the lack of a suitably rigorous scientific method.

Since 2010, The Cairns Institute at James Cook University has had a research partnership with Cairns Regional Council to analyse the effectiveness of council’s open-space, urban CCTV system. For example, we have published evidence in Injury Prevention, that a continuously monitored system, with real-time communication links to appropriate response on the ground, limited the consequences of alcohol-related assaults in 40 per cent of incidents in the night-time economy. Resultant savings to the community were up to $1.4 million.

There is potential to improve the proactive, preventative nature of CCTV systems for reducing this type of assault. We use the Realist Evaluation framework. The science directs analysis of the complexities surrounding CCTV, its operation and management, and its integration into the co-ordinated community safety approach. The Realist Evaluation mantra is that it aims to understand what works for whom in what circumstances. Outcomes are the result of intervention mechanisms operating within definable contexts. Our paper published in Crime Prevention and Community Safety expands on this in relation to CCTV effectiveness. Managers and operators of CCTV systems in Victoria and south-east Queensland have used our approach, suggesting it is replicable beyond Cairns Regional Council. Importantly, our research has found that one strategic benefit to our partners through our use of the Realist Evaluation approach is that it closely corresponds with a continuous quality improvement process. Enhancing management and operational practices, and delivering more cost-effective services is a goal for all organisations. It may not be sexy, or score political points, but it is fundamental evaluation science. Which in turn is fundamental good management practice.

In 2011, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released a report which examined experiences of local councils funded by the Commonwealth’s Safer Suburbs program regarding CCTV implementation and operation. The report was primarily designed to assist councils in the implementation and evaluation of such CCTV systems. The AIC paper, by Jessica Anderson and Amanda McAtamney, suggested Realist Evaluation as an appropriate evaluation method for council-managed, open-space CCTV systems. Other key findings included that the demand for CCTV is unlikely to abate, that a significant proportion of organisations implementing CCTV become aware of the real cost only after systems are installed, that not all agencies had developed evaluation strategies, and that where they had, these were often limited to coarse pre/post-test measures of community surveys and crime data (usually limited to police statistics).

These results concern me, but are not surprising when another key finding of the AIC is that “… many agencies have difficulty locating information on the practical considerations for implementing a CCTV system”. The AIC and various agencies in each state government and the Commonwealth have endeavoured to provide this information, but my experience is that local management find it fragmented and piecemeal. The international research literature, across disciplines, notes the aptitude of a Realist Evaluation research framework to analyse and synthesise theoretical domains, and various methods and results into a coherent body of evidence. In fact, many research papers in highly respected journals have found that retro-fitting Realist Evaluation to previous or existing projects can uncover knowledge and insights which have significant policy benefits. These findings support the AIC recommendation that Realist Evaluation is an appropriate framework within which agencies can contribute to the CCTV knowledge base. If we are building for the future, we need a consolidated foundation.

Most people have a vague knowledge of CCTV systems, but have no understanding of its scope and power. Significant public money has been invested, and will probably continue to be invested. Politicians may even continue pushing for new or expanded CCTV systems in their local areas. When The Cairns Institute first started the CCTV research program, I felt sure that with all the expenditure of public money, sooner or later questions about its effectiveness would be asked. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and an Athenian voter discuss the roles and responsibilities of the city’s guardians. Socrates is asked, “Who will watch the watchers?” He replies, “They will watch themselves. They will be told a noble lie”. The original question has never gone away. The Shoalhaven decision, and the immediate political response to it, illustrates this. It is time to debate the answer more openly, more transparently, and with some discussion based on science.

Boris Pointing
Boris Pointing is the Senior Research Officer at The Cairns Institute, James Cook University & Consulting Director, Independent Governance Specialists for CCTV.