King’s Lynn leading the way in CCTV use
When CCTV cameras were installed in King's Lynn, there was no way of knowing how successful they would be in reducing thefts on a crime-riddled industrial estate.
Why? Because the town was the first in the country outside London to implement a CCTV system in 1987 when cameras appeared on the North Lynn Industrial Estate.
But the cameras were so successful in catching thieves that West Norfolk council took over the running of this pioneering system and introduced cameras in its car parks.
The system again proved effective, with vehicle crime falling by 97pc, and soon other towns followed suit in introducing their own version – sparking fears George Orwell's 1984 was becoming a reality with claims 'Big Brother' would be watching over us.
Fast-forward to 2012 – 25 years after the first cameras were installed – and Lynn has one of the most comprehensive systems in the country with 264 cameras covering residential areas, leisure parks, car parks, industrial estates, sports facilities and shopping areas.
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As well as boasting radio links with police, shops, pubs and clubs, it has the country's first partnership with rapid-response bicycle paramedics.
The self-financed system may also lead the way again soon by allowing police officers to view footage remotely.
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Karl Weeks, CCTV operations manager, said: 'The CCTV system you see today is completely different to what we had in place 25 years ago.
'But what we have still not been able to get rid of is this 'Big Brother' image that we are so often tainted with but this is about a decade out of date. Even then there were only a few systems in the country that gave you that feeling and King's Lynn was certainly not one of them.
'We now have strict legislation in place telling us what we can and can't do so people should not buy into this 'Big Brother' image.'
Opponents of CCTV point out the loss of privacy of the people under surveillance, and the negative impact of surveillance on civil liberties. Furthermore, they argue that CCTV displaces crime, rather than reducing it. There are also claims that cameras 'often' face the wrong way when offences are taking place and that footage is not of a good enough quality.
But Mr Weeks, who has operated the cameras around Lynn since 1994, continued: 'There is no such thing as a camera facing the wrong way.
'These systems are recording 24/7 in order to maximise what evidence is captured and we programme a number of locations for the camera to look at when an operator is not controlling it.
'Take, for example, the camera on Westgates in King's Lynn – it looks up Broad Street, towards Sainsbury's and back up to Argos.
'If we didn't move the camera around then we would capture everything in one place but miss everything else so this automatic setting gives us a one-in-three chance of capturing something if the camera is not being operated by an operator.
'At the end of the day we are not going to see everything but the effect we do have and the evidence we do give to the police continually overrides anything that we miss.
'CCTV systems today are more about public safety than just tackling crime but with the good quality footage we can capture, it is second to only DNA because you can't get away from it.'
He added: 'I also don't accept the concept of displacement. If CCTV displaced crime to other areas then we wouldn't have any crime in the town centre but we do.
'People may then argue that CCTV is not really reducing crime. But I would say it has reduced crime in car parks without a doubt and that we will never be able to stop people who come out on a Friday or Saturday night, get drunk and start a fight.'
Mr Weeks has a team of nine who work shifts to ensure there is someone in the control room 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last month the team clocked up 227 incidents.
'These systems need to be both pro-active and reactive,' Mr Weeks said. 'If we know there is a problem in a particular place then we will focus our cameras there to pro-actively catch things. Operators also have tasks during the day to look for X, Y and Z, rather than just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring to respond to something.'
He continued: 'I'm also forever looking at new ways to improve what we do here. The fundamentals of CCTV systems with a camera and an operator hasn't changed in 25 years but it has been how the system has evolved and been managed.
'We bought a community safety surveillance van in 2009 which has allowed the police to take it to high areas of crime or rural areas where there aren't cameras and it acts as a visible deterrent.
'We also use it for our own enforcement or use it for event management to help run safe events.
'We are now looking to introduce remote viewing for Norfolk Police which would be the first of its kind in the country.
'If you think it takes two officers to come to the control room to investigate a crime and they are there for an hour – how much is that costing the taxpayer when they could view the footage at the station?'
An independent public opinion survey on the use and value of CCTV in public areas was commissioned by the CCTV User Group and undertaken by RNS Research International last year.
Results of the survey revealed 90pc of respondents support the use of public area CCTV by local authorities and public bodies and 82pc believe CCTV saves money by reducing police and court time. Brian Long, portfolio holder for environment and community at West Norfolk council, said: 'Initially it was thought CCTV would be a way of reducing crime but in King's Lynn it has become much more of a neighbourhood tool, guiding and assisting the police as well as other emergency services and partners.
'I believe it genuinely does help public well-being. There is obviously an element of society which doesn't want 'Big Brother' watching over them all the time but I think the residents in and around King's Lynn covered by CCTV feel comfortable there is someone keeping an eye not just them but what is happening around them.
'The team here also do commercial monitoring for other organisations so it is a self-financing system.
'Looking forward to the future, I think CCTV can evolve and develop as the town and surrounding areas grow and develop.
'We were very much in at the beginning of CCTV in our towns and I think over the years, it's helped King's Lynn be a safer and more secure place for the people who come here to work, shop and for recreation.'
Ady Porter King's Lynn & West Norfolk Chief Inspector said: 'I think the success of this system is down to people like Karl and his team who are very driven and enthusiastic.
'Karl is always pushing the boundaries to improve this system which is great. For example he has got a CCTV van which can go to areas there aren't any cameras and it's a great tool for us to be able to use.
'There are huge unseen savings with this system that the public won't hear about. What I mean by that is, if a person doesn't get assaulted in the street because of a camera, then they don't have to go to hospital and be seen by a GP and then have to claim benefits because they have been disabled in some way.
'There are so many costs you just don't think about and if a camera can stop these costs happening – surely that can only be seen as positive?
'Looking to the future, we are looking at the cost impact of having to send officers to the control room to review footage and exploring the possibility of reviewing footage at the station.
'I also think there is potential to significantly reduce cycle thefts. Perhaps have a lock which sends a text to a CCTV system to say it is being tampered with and then the CCTV can monitor what is going on.
'Whether or not schemes like this happen or not will be down to finance but there is always cost-saving involved if you are reducing thefts and crime in the town.
'There are critics of CCTV out there but I look at the successes this system brings and not the failures.
'No system is infallible and I don't think this CCTV system is suggesting that it is but what you can say, in its 25-year history, it has provided us with a superb crime-fighting tool that has now also modified itself to tackle anti-social behaviour.'
Meanwhile Carl Smith, West Norfolk duty operations manager at the East of England Ambulance NHS Trust, has said having a paramedic and bike based with the CCTV team has 'drastically' reduced their response times for the centre of King's Lynn.
He continued: 'We used to struggle to hit our target response time of eight minutes going into the town centre but now our average response time is two and a half minutes.
'The paramedics are in constant contact with door staff, police officers, security in the shops and the control room and sometimes the paramedic is already on their way as the 999 call is being made.
'This partnership is fantastic for us because when you have people going into cardiac arrest, for example, the faster you can get to them the better. For every minute they are in cardiac arrest, they lost 10pc chance of survival.
'We are averaging about five calls a day and the bike carries everything an ambulance carries but on a smaller scale.
'This partnership is truly unique. Sure there have been paramedics on bikes in London for years but they are not linked in with CCTV and now a national group has been set up to try and set up similar partnerships across the country.
'In Norfolk, we have got bikes set up in Norwich and Yarmouth and we are already looking to link these in with CCTV because our experience with King's Lynn CCTV has had a tremendous impact on our response times and patient outcomes.'