TV keeps eye on British streets Closed-circuit patrol: Video policing is becoming more popular in Britain, and leaders in Baltimore hope to mirror the system's crime- fighting success.

January 29, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- In a video control room atop a City of London police station, Chief Inspector John Notton can punch up images from 47 cameras and view the glories of England on 39 television screens.

Here, St. Paul's Cathedral. There, the Bank of England. And over there, why, it's a man in a blue van going the wrong way up a one-way street. Gotcha.

"Cameras create a more effective use of policing," In spector Notton says. "We can react not only to what the public sees, but what security sees."

In Britain, the video cops and their cameras are on the beat. The country is fast becoming the world leader in erecting closed-circuit television systems to watch over the streets. Cameras are as much a part of the British landscape as medieval churches, with at least 80 town and city centers rigged up to video systems.

The plan by Baltimore leaders to install 200 video cameras downtown in the next year mirrors programs that have long existed in Britain. Baltimore's plunge into the video patrol world is under way with a pilot program around Lexington Market, where 16 cameras will be taping within two weeks.

"Monitoring in Britain has had a dramatic impact on crime and has helped assist in arrests. We're hoping to emulate a lot of those things here," says Frank Russo, public safety director for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the group spearheading the drive to wire the city.

In Britain, which entered the video policing age in 1985, cameras hang from warehouses, office buildings and bridges. They are perched in bus, train and subway stations. They zoom in on city centers and shopping malls, even a beach. They record everything from license plates of speeding cars to faces of soccer fans.

Police use video to observe riots. Firemen tape blazes to catch arsonists that stay to view the flames.

In a society where fewer than 1,000 murders occurred in 1994, the use of so much video might strike some as a bit paranoid and a shade too close to a "Big Brother" world as envisioned by George Orwell in the novel "1984."

But the public has embraced the age of policing by video. The concept is so popular that the ruling Conservative government has vowed to help finance the installation of 10,000 more cameras in the next three years.

Two incidents galvanized public support for video.

A surveillance system at a shopping mall outside Liverpool tracked 2-year-old James Bulger as he was led to his death by two 10-year-old boys in February 1993. Police saw the tape and made the arrests.

Two months after the Bulger killing, a camera hanging from a bank building showed two Irish Republican Army terrorists parking a truck laden with explosives in London. A newspaper photographer was killed and 37 people were injured in the blast.

The system in the City of London, as the city's financial district is known, is perhaps the most sophisticated in Britain. The aim is to keep an eye on cars moving through the tightly controlled access roads to the 1-square-mile district. Cameras revolve 360 degrees. Their zoom lenses can read a pack of cigarettes. Motion detectors activate an alarm if vehicles enter streets in the wrong direction.

In a few years, license plates read by the cameras will be cross-referenced with police computer files.

A system that was put on line to combat possible IRA terrorism won't be going away even if peace comes to Northern Ireland, according to Inspector Notton. In fact, the City of London will in the next few years attempt to tap into 1,204 video cameras owned by private businesses in the area.

"Terrorism is just one crime," he says. "Other crime is important to us. We have not had one armed robbery in this zone in 2 1/2 years. Criminals know the system is there."

The bustling northern city of Newcastle provides the most graphic example of cameras going up and crime coming down. In December 1992, a 16-camera, closed-circuit system was installed in a 1-square-mile area of the city center. Within two years, police reported crime down in all categories, from a 19 percent drop in assaults to a 56 percent cut in auto thefts. Burglaries of businesses were slashed by 50 percent. Police say the system has helped in 800 arrests.

Other areas can point to similar success. Without cameras in 1991, King's Lynn parking lots had 207 car thefts reported. With cameras in 1994, not one theft was recorded. Law enforcement officials maintain that criminal activity does not move to other neighborhoods beyond view of the cameras.

"People feel a lot safer in an environment covered by cameras," says Richard Thomas, deputy chief constable of Gwent and a national expert in closed-circuit TV systems. "Cameras have enabled public authorities to manage downtown centers in a much more effective way."

But does an unblinking video eye pose a threat to civil liberties?

"There are no controls on who is doing the monitoring and what happens to the information on the tapes," says Atiya Lockwood, spokeswoman for Liberty, a civil liberties group. "People can sell off the tapes."

Some systems are manned by police on behalf of towns and cities. In other cases, private security firms do the watching, then report infractions to local police. Schools, hospitals, shopping centers, business parks and housing estates have extensive video systems.

The surveillance debate heated up last year when a London firm released a 45-minute video titled "Caught in the Act!" Its footage of violent crimes, public sex and outrageous driving caused a storm. The public wanted to know how the tapes were obtained. The tape eventually was removed from stores.

Constable Thomas is among those drawing up a code of practice to ensure that tapes are used for legitimate policing and not entertainment or, worse, blackmail.

"As long as the information gathered is treated correctly, there is no civil liberties problem," he says.

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