Caught on camera: the CCTV challenges facing police forces

​CCTV plays a vital role in police investigations and the footage not only helps reduce costs, time and effort, it also improves prosecution outcomes. The variation of modern crime makes its application imperative to stretched forces, as not only does it act as a force multiplier but also supports units on patrol. CCTV’s role is diverse and while providing quality digital evidence to support investigations, the recordings also deliver intelligence relating to potential threats – anything from anti-social behavior to terrorism. It’s estimated that a third of all cases handled by the CPS include CCTV evidence.

Currently the UK’s public sector is faced with an economic climate which is demanding services to ‘do more with less.’ With the majority of CCTV cameras operated and maintained by local authorities, it’s easy to understand why facilities such as these are under threat to police forces up and down the country. With the 2025 Digital Policing Vision calling for the transformation of police ICT, forces are on the brink of modernizing operations and digital CCTV is a key element. While the cameras covering public spaces provide intelligence to both the police and local authorities, the current infrastructure is somewhat siloed. But there is opportunity to evolve the technology, adapt it to help tackle current challenges and improve infrastructure.

Increased interoperability

Modern digital CCTV services are critical to deterring criminals, protecting vulnerable people, and effectively prosecuting offenders. However, with an emphasis on digital transformation and the current deluge of data, it’s important to tackle the interoperability of CCTV systems between the criminal justice system, police and other public services. The current challenge is around creating a joined-up approach rather than the current myriad of systems and data, which work independently of each other and are not integrated.

The benefits of a fully integrated system are huge and we’re certainly starting to see a change in the way digital evidence is managed. Increased interoperability of CCTV would allow officers to use data and information more effectively during investigations. For instance, officers investigating a case might track down a suspect’s vehicle by reviewing CCTV footage and noting the number plate. If they could then easily access other surveillance images and cross-reference the information with other sources – it would allow them to build a better picture of the suspect and their movements leading up-to and after the incident.

With many digital video file formats in use, there’s often inconsistencies between forces up and down the country. This also impacts the sharing of evidence between forces and the CPS, although this issue might be alleviated with the implementation of the CJS Common Platform. Industry body TechUK reported that if online reporting and submission of digital evidence such as CCTV were implemented nationwide, it could save at least £30 million. So, it’s important that common platforms and systems are established to aid resource sharing as well as the movement of digital case files and evidence, ultimately making the process more efficient and decreasing the risk of loss.

CCTV gets smart

CCTV is often referred to as the unseen eyes of the police, but soon digital CCTV will be equipped with the brainpower to boot. More and more, Artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology will become integrated with CCTV, equipping cameras with the ability to analyze live video. Combined with the digitization of CCTV this makes a powerful mix and enables live footage to be streamed directly into remote surveillance centers and police control rooms – helping first responders quickly identify crimes and incidents. Just as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology is used to help detect vehicles of interest, police forces will begin to embrace the use of AI for real-time crime reporting. With real-time automated detection capabilities, CCTV will scan for missing and wanted persons as well as suspicious behavior such as public intoxication or attempted theft.

In fact, the technology is already being trialed and last summer South Wales Police used facial recognition technology to make an arrest for the first time – identifying the suspect by matching his face against images stored on a database. Facial recognition technology and live streaming could result in a dramatic change in the way police officers catch offenders. Instead of playing catch-up and using CCTV to identify where suspects were a few hours ago, police could track the location in real-time using remote access to connected cameras.

Moving to the cloud

With digital CCTV becoming more prevalent and increasingly moving towards the cloud, footage is becoming more easily accessible. CCTV control centers are starting to adapt to the process of streaming and sharing footage, eliminating the need for disks and USB sticks. Currently when investigating officers are handed CCTV footage on a disk or USB stick, they must first attempt to find the file format and can spend hours searching the internet, as well as dedicated forums trying to identify the correct file viewing software. This is hugely inefficient, time consuming and has knock on effects through the entire criminal justice system, but there is opportunity to adapt and enhance it.

For many investigating officers collecting digital evidence is just the beginning, often putting all the pieces together can be an even bigger challenge. There are often hours spent physically collecting CCTV footage from public and private systems within the vicinity of a criminal incident. This currently involves police officers acting as glorified couriers driving to CCTV operation rooms to manually download footage onto disks or USB memory sticks, a huge waste of time and valuable resources.

Then there is the time-consuming process of sifting through the CCTV evidence, in order to find the right frames. The move towards standardized digital facilities is incredibly important and could remove the need for disks to be personally collected from sites. By investing in crowdsourcing and digital evidence management systems, police forces will be able to invite businesses and the public to register their CCTV cameras in a secure portal. This makes the process of sourcing footage easy, searchable and most importantly utilizes privately maintained high-definition footage for the benefit of the entire criminal justice system.

Demonstrating the value of CCTV   

As mentioned previously the streaming of digital CCTV has many benefits and with cuts on resources, there are varying reasons why public agencies are keen to ensure the survival of CCTV monitoring and response centers. For example, local councils will be interested in public safety and traffic management, while police forces will want footage for evidence and detection of crime. In any event, digital CCTV footage provides an efficient and accessible way to gain clarity on a situation and build up a bank of evidence. That’s why it’s important that funding is retained for the centers, and police forces can use this as an opportunity to update local authorities on the extent to which CCTV has been useful. Highlighting investigations where CCTV has been significant to the case, and providing feedback on incidents, will ensure continued support of this valuable resource. There is certainly a need to standardize, modernize and demonstrate the value of CCTV but it certainly feels like the UK is on the cusp of cracking the CCTV conundrum.​

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