An English bobbie on Downtown security cams

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November 24, 2003 // UPDATED 11:07 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Paul Valentine adds his insight as Downtown's outdoor camera network prepares to go live

Paul Valentine is a bobbie -- the English equivalent of an American cop. He is a retail

crime liaison officer (similar to a SAFE officer) in Northampton, a city about an hour north of London, with 260,000 residents. Northampton has been using closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) for 15 years in an effort to deter crime; currently, it has more than 300 cameras. He specializes in information sharing between businesses and police officers.

While Valentine lauds CCTV, the cameras also have many critics. There are stories in the United Kingdom about some abuses -- reports of security guards zeroing in on attractive women and couples kissing in cars. Some also allege that black men are watched more closely than other citizens.

Valentine will be Downtown until Dec. 6 to assist police as they get ready to unveil the Target-sponsored SafeZone camera system -- expected to be up and running early next year.

How does the camera system work? First of all, it is not run or owned by the police. The actual camera system is owned by the Borough Council (similar to a city or town council). The actual cameras are staffed by civilian security officers. Having said that, police have a vested interested in CCTV and work very closely with them. ... The camera system is only one small integral part of equal-sized chunks that make the whole scheme work. ... Just putting the cameras in without information is hopeless.

Where are they situated? On the corner of buildings. Some are on lampposts. Predominately, they are building perched -- a good 25 feet up in the air.

And is there one command center where you can monitor all of them at once? Yes. The citizens monitor them, but [police] have access to them within the police station. What we didn't want to do is get a highly trained police officer who's probably paid a bit more than security, trained in all sorts of tactical communications, monitoring a camera. ... I don't mean to sound demeaning, but actually security -- when they're running it professionally -- become more experienced and controlled at gathering evidence and video footage. The last thing you need is to have sort of a heavy-handed policeman come in and take control. So what we have in our police control room is monitors. We're able to see some of what the control room sees. So if there's an incident happening right now, they'll put a live beam into the police control room so we can see that. ...

Normally, we have six operatives -- CCTV controllers. They are security guards.

Have you seen a drop in crime? Over the last five years, a significant proportion of a drop in crime, because we're working differently. We've adopted the information sharing. ... What's really helped is having the security in the stores on a retail-radio link that is able to talk to the cameras. So if you've kicked off in my shop or you've been abusive to me, or you've tried to steal something, you don't just go out from my store and go straight into the next one, which is

happening at the moment in the Downtown Minneapolis area. There's like a united show of hands that says, "You're not coming in here."

So are all crimes are going down? Robberies are rare -- street robberies, assaults, just about all aspects of crime have been reduced. ... Over the last five years, something like 40 percent, which is a significant reduction. Our CCTV centers are responsible for something like 300 arrests a month.

What about privacy concerns? We had [that debate] 15 years ago. We were where you are now 15 years ago. People were worried about Big Brother watching you. Was it for a secret government cloak? Were people using it for marketing information? The usual sort of skepticism that comes with any kind of pilot. But now there's been a complete turnaround in public opinion. So much so that the public will ring up and say, "Why don't we have CCTV on our estate?"

There have been some news reports of security guards in the U.K. zeroing in on women and minorities in a discriminatory manner? What's your take on that? The camera controllers are highly trained. Within the CCTV, not only are the operators held in quite a professional regard; but also within the CCTV practice, there's also a supervisor monitoring what they're monitoring, basically. ... Under no circumstances that I'm aware of over the last 15 years that Northampton CCTV has been operating do you get controllers who follow women, follow minority group or peer into people's houses, for example. It's unethical and it certainly leads to instant dismissal. On top of that, the tapes are regularly viewed and monitored.

Does anybody get a second chance -- the repeat offenders? First of all, we'll only tackle the lifestyle criminals. The people that cause everybody's lives misery. The people that are responsible for a high proportion of crime and what we call antisocial behavior. ... Yeah, there are people that have had a hard time, and you know, have fallen on hard times and are asking for money. We don't condone it, but we are not going to pick on those people.

What do you do about the repeat offenders? We'll listen to what the businesses are saying. Because if they are saying to us this person is a lifestyle offender, and they are continually attempting to steal or being abusive, the scheme itself (made up of all sorts of key stake holders in the town) will seek to serve that person a civil-exclusion notice, which bans them from entering upwards of 160 member stores or businesses in Northampton. ... It unites the town in doing this, saying, "You're not coming in." And if it gets to the stage where the offender says, "Well, I am," then the security officers call the police, and they deal with them. By and large that's quite successful because the offender's anonymity is blown for a start, and most people get tired of being turned away time and again. Eventually, they get the message and filter out of town, and they don't become a problem.

How do bobbies compare to American police? By and large, the average police officer in Northampton, in England, is not armed. Essentially, we're dealing with the same type of work. It's your fights; it's your accidents; it's your domestics; it's your burglaries. Crime wherever you go in the world is exactly the same.

What is your sense of safety in Minneapolis? Well, being a police officer, I'm not particularly scared very easily. And I walked down Hennepin past 9 p.m. I was out on my own and as British bobbies do, I went for a beer. So I went down the road; oddly enough, I went to the Brit's. ... I was, I think the expression is panhandled, three times on the way back. Having said that, I was asked for money, in a more or less polite way. "Got any change, buddy," that type of thing. Now, I can understand how people can feel intimidated by that. I wasn't personally. It wasn't aggressive. ... Conversely, if I had been a lone female wanting to get home, it's dark and perhaps not nice.