Mind The Gap – Theoretical Foundations For CCTV

CCTVIn the first two articles in this series for Security Solutions Magazine, I provided information on how much money the Commonwealth and state governments have spent to install CCTV cameras and related technological infrastructure in local government areas; commented on actions, including legislative change, which politicians have implemented to continue expanding the coverage of open-space, urban CCTV; and bewailed the lack of rigorous evidence on which those political actions and public spend have been based. I also reported unattributed comments from managers of a number of council managed CCTV systems that we need some sort of national or state-based evaluation framework, with updated operational and strategic guidelines, and agreed key performance indicators so policy and practice regarding the use of these types of CCTV systems can better meet their stated aims. Basically I questioned why we spend so much money on CCTV cameras when not enough focus has been paid to understanding if CCTV works, and why it does work where it has been shown to. There are a lot of “I’s” in that paragraph, but it is about CCTV.

To illustrate it was not simply empty rhetoric around CCTV, I provided peer-reviewed evidence from our research program which found that a continually monitored system with real-time communication on the ground interrupted 40 per cent of assaults within a night time economy, limiting the injury consequences of the assault and summarised the cost-benefit analysis of this network to the community. We estimated that the economic benefit to the community easily outweighed the recurrent costs of this sort of system.

In the previous articles I also noted we had found the Realist Evaluation methodology useful to our council partners. The Realist Evaluation methodology drove the methods of the research because it focusses on outcomes important to the CCTV managers, and helps them identify which intervention mechanisms cause results in different contexts. The Australian Institute of Criminology suggests the Realist Evaluation methodology is useful and applicable for councils trying to evaluate the effectiveness of their CCTV operations and dollar spend. We have published definitions of the operational and theoretical contexts of a council managed, open-space urban CCTV system in Crime Prevention and Community Safety: an International Journal, and have tested these in four different sites across Australia. They stand up to questioning from managers. The Realist approach also provides a methodology through which the methods and results of the scores of funded CCTV projects can be retrospectively analysed to provide a foundational evidence base in Australia to guide future public spending on cameras and related hard and soft infrastructure. And it is the soft infrastructure, the human processes linked to CCTV, which our evidence has shown yield the gains. With that in mind, below is an exploration of the theoretical domains in CCTV research. These domains are an adaptation of Dr Dean Wilson’s work. He and Dr Adam Sutton conducted the first extensive research of council managed CCTV systems in Australia. Dr Sutton went on to direct the Australian Institute of Criminology for a number of years, and Dr Wilson continues high level criminological research. I have drawn on a paper Dr Wilson presented to the Australian and New Zealand Conference of Critical Criminology in 2008, and added some findings of my own research. I hope this stimulates debate at a policy level, and gives some help to managers of council systems to frame their thinking in CCTV operations. Some of these theoretical gaps comprise:

  1. Deterrence at the population level.
  2. CCTV control room operations.
  3. Data Accuracy.
  4. Strategic intelligence sharing with partners.
  5. Police involvement.
  6. Directed response of people on the ground.

I will address the two theoretical domains which may show the highest benefits with the least investment below – the 80/20 rule.


CCTV is often marketed to the community in which it is to be established as a crime prevention tool, despite it being predominantly used to provide evidence to support investigations and prosecutions. One CCTV control room I visited last week had received more than 400 requests from police in the previous six months for the burning of incident footage onto DVDs. That equates to more than two every day. System managers who read this will understand the resource burden this places on them.

In order for CCTV to fulfil some of its objectives, it must rely on accompanying psychological and social processes to be present in the surveilled population. Such studies are hard to find in the literature. Less than five have been published in Australia since the early 1990s, with the most recent on the Gold Coast more than seven years ago. Again, these studies appear to be simplistic due to the lack of an appropriate methodology, and in a more naked sense, they expose a lack of a unifying theoretical framework with which to approach the study of this important tool. The findings reflect this with the generally touted result that: “if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear”. An added complexity is that most systems include monitoring of the night time economy, and state the reduction of public disorder and offending in that context as a goal. The cognitive and psycho-social processes of people in these environments are often impaired by alcohol and other drugs. Deterrence has not been found to be a protective factor in studies of populations which have recently consumed more than 12 standard drinks and a kebab.

Directed Response Of People On The Ground

This is the mechanism which most managers of CCTV systems state is the difference between life and death. Every Australian manager I have spoken to, and most of the camera operators, have stories of a life saved: like the young woman having an epileptic fit, or the boy who was choking on his tongue. These stories need to be told to the policy makers, and the general public.

In a 2005 finding by Sivarajasingam, Matthews and Professor John Shepherd in the United Kingdom, CCTV was shown to be correlated with a reduction in hospital presentations resulting from assault injuries. It was also correlated with an increase in recorded assault offences. They suggested this was the result of increased surveillance capability by the police through CCTV, leading to a higher proportion of violent incidents being interrupted before serious injuries occurred. This key concept informed the design of our study in Cairns which found that 40 per cent of assaults were interrupted by camera operators tasking police and private security to intervene. One key difference was that in Cairns, all these assaults were interrupted by private security. If you are reading Security Solutions Magazine regularly, you will know why this was so. Improved training of camera operators and other private security officers, and continual quality improvement of the real time communication process could be reasonably expected to yield a higher proportion of interrupted assaults, and there is evidence that this process could possibly prevent these types of fights from beginning. Ethnographic research by Justin Barker from the Australian Catholic University found that patrons of the night time economy classify assaults as having four stages: victim selection, the interview or baiting, the assault, and the aftermath. Quicker identification and deployment, moving the arrival of feet on the street from the assault stage to the victim selection or bating stage may yield results. It may not. Camera operators have a difficult job interpreting complex and chaotic scenes during peak times on Friday and Saturday night, and I have witnessed a very high proportion of false positives – or behaviour that looked threatening, but ended up being mates joking around with each other. Nevertheless, it may be worth analysing this further.

The EIDOS Institute recently held their 9th annual National Public Policy Congress. The idea of this forum is to bring researchers, business, policy makers and practitioners into one space and to exchange ideas in order to better utilise under used resources. Presenters included the Executive Director of the Australian research Council’s Social, Behavioural and Economic Science division, the Director of the Queensland Government’s Independent Commission of Audit in the Public Service Commission, the First Assistant Secretary of the Strategy and Delivery Division in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and 29 professors. I would like to thank EIDOS, and particularly Professor Bruce Muirhead and Dr Maddy Fowler, for the chance to present in their policing and security stream. The recommendations to the federal and state governments in my presentation were simple – stop funding new cameras, financially support councils to evaluate and enhance their existing human processes around CCTV, and when you start funding CCTV infrastructure again, do not bother funding un-monitored systems. Give councils the tools, evidence and resources to make a true difference in their communities.

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