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Public Cameras Change Crime Picture in Britain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a country where good cops have often been quirky, Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Morse, some of the best detectives nowadays stand on poles and never blink. Telemetry, my dear Watson.

Crime in Newcastle is etched in black and white at the flick of a joystick. This rough-hewn, hard-drinking city is improbably taking a leading role in a nationwide love affair with anti-crime street surveillance cameras.

“We are leading the world in closed-circuit television technology and its use,” said John Stevens, police chief of the Northumbria region here in northern England.

In a month of especially heavy European tourism in Britain, including up to 300,000 partisan and potentially unruly sports fans, sharp-eyed Newcastle is being held up as a continental model--and a warning.

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Big Bobby is watching, mate. What’s more, in a country where people are by tradition reserved and exhibit ingrained respect for one another’s privacy, most seem content to be in the picture.

There is nothing secret about Newcastle’s candid cameras. Everyone knows where they are, atop buildings and vandal-proof masts on busy streets. But some people forget.

In less than five years, Constable Lens has fingered 1,500 crooks in downtown Newcastle. Confronted with taped evidence, all but seven pleaded guilty. Those seven were convicted, according to Peter Durham, the precinct commander in downtown Newcastle.

In the United States, Baltimore only recently became the first major city to begin experimenting with downtown TV, but in Britain the cameras are widely accepted in modern crime fighting. They cannot replace police patrols, but they can be invaluable silent partners, Newcastle officers say.

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Since they were first tested in Birmingham as the decade began, urban cameras have spread to several thousand cities and towns, typically paid for by local governments and anti-crime groups, according to Karen Hart of the government’s Crime Protection Agency.

Government reports cite the cameras as a major reason for falling crime figures: In the small town of Berwick, burglaries fell 69% after four cameras were installed. Glasgow, Scotland, reported a 68% drop in crime. In Northampton, it was 57%. Now business people on Oxford Street, one of London’s busiest shopping areas, are saying they plan a camera system aimed at curbing street crime and shoplifting.

As in the United States, private closed-circuit camera systems are well-known features of British office, parking, shopping and residential complexes, transportation systems and sports stadiums. But it is the great day-and-night concentration of pedestrians in the heart of Britain’s cities that makes the cameras so attractive to authorities. The apparatuses have a powerful calming effect on people worried about crime.

“We had 50 public meetings about putting cameras into a residential area for the first time without a single objection. We got complaints, though, from residents who were not getting cameras,” said Eric Mock, the precinct commander in Newcastle West.

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Other European countries are studying the British successes, but what alarms some analysts is that while the technology is cutting edge, rules for its use are scant.

There are no national standards; each agency derives its own code of conduct about what it will film and what it will act upon. An assault? Sure. But a shoving match among teenagers? Street solicitation for sex? Some amicably rowdy drunks?

“There is no statutory regulation of private security, just as there is no legal enforceability of the right to privacy,” said criminologist Clive Norris. At a recent conference in Boston, Norris said, he was surprised by the relative lack of interest and debate about candid cameras in public spaces in America, where the right of privacy is recognized by statute in only a few states. Legal judgments about surveillance in public places are stricter in some places than others, with Sweden, Germany and Italy, to name a few European countries, all more restrictive than Britain.

“We have laws against trespass and nuisance, but if you take a picture of someone in a public space, the subject of the picture has no legal right to its use. When we say that ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle,’ we’re defining privacy as a right tied up with property, not civil rights,” Norris said.

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Good-usage rules published by an association of local governments urge that cameras “operate in a manner that is sensitive to the privacy of people living and working in the area.”

In some cities, such as London, street cameras are owned and operated privately. “Civilian operators will phone us if they see something, and they may put the picture on a monitor in the station,” said Alex Sutherland, a crime prevention officer for the Metropolitan police. Only then do police decide whether to react.

Atiya Lockwood, spokeswoman for the National Council for Civil Liberties, says it is time to control the cameras: Surveillance film from private companies has found its way into cheap-thrills videos: elevator sex, parking lot punch-ups. Recently, a camera operator in a small Welsh town pleaded guilty to making obscene phone calls to women picked up on his cameras.

Supporters, who far outnumber the detractors, say lenses are not peering through bedroom windows.

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“There is, of course, Big Brother concerns, but the argument is that if people are doing something legal they have nothing to fear from cameras. The job of the cameras is to identify people who are doing something wrong,” said Claire Sumner, a spokeswoman for the Home Office.

The British government began providing money for the cameras in its 1994-95 budget. Now, nearly 800 local governments are competing for $22 million in matching government funds for cameras. An additional $44 million is promised over the next two years.

Newcastle police think their new surveillance system in the tough West End neighborhood may be the first in the world specifically designed to patrol a large residential neighborhood.

It went online last fall following the success of a 16-camera, bought-with-donations downtown system launched in December 1992.

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About 1.5 million people live in the Northumbria region, and Newcastle is party central for northeastern England. The city’s downtown is the commercial, intellectual, athletic and liquid heart of the city.

In addition to the best shops and biggest businesses, there are two universities, a major league soccer stadium and 152 pubs downtown--82 of them in one 400-yard-square patch called the Bigg Market.

Weekend hilarity often spills into the streets, and in 1991 downtown Newcastle recorded 13,500 crimes. At the end of 1993, after a full year of cameras, crimes had fallen to 9,000.

“Crime figures were down another 25% in the first quarter of this year. That means the overall rate has been about halved since 1991,” said Chief Inspector Dave Hand. “Cameras are not the answer to everything, but they have become a key part of a coordinated strategy to fight crime.”

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Last month, about 1,000 frustrated Newcastle soccer fans rampaged through downtown streets. Police jailed about 50 hooligans that night, but the cameras saw many more candidates for what is dryly termed “retrospective arrest.”

Detectives spent weeks studying reels of black-and-white footage taken from surveillance cameras. In all, they picked out 152 faces, arresting 19 of them in dawn raids. Then they gave surveillance camera pictures of 80 others to a local newspaper. Within a couple of days all had been identified, including a number who gave themselves up.

Last week, borrowing the example, Scotland Yard distributed the pictures of six soccer fans filmed during violence in London in April. The fear is that ruffians will try to disrupt the ongoing Euro ’96 soccer championships this month, which will bring 1.3 million fans to the largest sporting event in Britain in 30 years.

In September, a camera system came to the blue-collar West End, where 26% of the men have criminal records and 40% of men between 16 and 24 are unemployed. They’ve helped in more than 300 arrests, but they have real limits, said Deputy Precinct Commander Joe Hewison.

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“It’s like giving somebody a pair of binoculars and telling him to stand on a high building. He needs to know where to look and why to look. Without good information, cameras are just pie in the sky,” he said.

The latest wrinkle on Newcastle’s technological frontier is a portable set of cameras that can be moved around as circumstance demands. They are one solution to what police call displacement: Criminals who know they may be on candid cameras seek corners without them.


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