How To Maximise Future Investment In CCTV

By Boris Pointing.

The national and state governments have spent tens of millions of dollars in the last decade to help local governments install CCTV camera systems and back-end technological infrastructure. However, it is hard to find any published evaluations of the effectiveness of this spend. There is a need for the current top-down, bottom-up approach (local councils installing cameras through central crime prevention infrastructure funding), to join up and inform a coherent national CCTV framework with shared goals and vision, and combined key performance indicators. This article explores what this might look like through the lens of a change in government.

The former Labor Commonwealth Government recently announced nearly 50 CCTV and lighting projects to be implemented and managed by local governments across Australia through the National Crime Prevention Program. The Federal Coalition will continue to spend money in this way. The Coalition’s Policy to Tackle Crime includes $50 million for future CCTVand lighting infrastructure to deter criminal activity and to help police find criminals.

As is usual with political statements about CCTV, the policy, which runs for five paragraphs, conflates the prevention of crime through CCTV with investigative, evidentiary and prosecutorial use of footage by police. Two unattributed studies from the United Kingdom are used to make the case that the $50 million will be well spent, through the crime-solving potential of CCTV. The policy also includes a plan to establish a voluntary register of private business’ CCTV to help police access evidence, “which may have additional deterrent effects”. This is a passing nod to the preventative potential of a system integrated within a community crime prevention framework.

Few other details have been released. The policy document acknowledges the role of the Commonwealth is mainly to support state governments and their police services, and to co-operate and consult with them, “to ensure those on the street fighting crime have the tools they need to get on with the job and keep our streets safe”. The incoming Coalition Government will presumably continue to work within the 2012 National Crime Prevention Framework, which was prepared by the Australian Institute of Criminology on behalf of the Australian and New Zealand Crime Prevention Senior Officers’ Group. This agreed framework notes the need for further research into the effectiveness of CCTV in public spaces as a crime prevention tool. It also notes the increasing use of CCTV by local governments across Australia as a component of partnered community crime prevention networks and policies.

A few years ago, two of Australia’s most respected criminologists, Adrian Cherney and Adam Sutton, stated that crime prevention policies are launched with fanfare but often fall well short of expectations. A key problem they identified is that many policies have not thought through, nor articulated, what the relevant strategies are aiming to do. Doctors Cherney and Sutton unequivocally state that these strategies are most effective when they consist of a dialogue between central and local levels. This is an important point with centralised funding being pumped in to install CCTV infrastructure which is owned and managed by local governments. It becomes more important when councils are responsible for recurrently funding these systems.

Comments to me by a number of managers of council owned and operated CCTV systems is that there is far more scope for the use of their system than simply downloading and burning footage to assist the police in investigations. All of these councils work in close partnership with the local police and recognise the value of these partnerships, but are struggling to identify ways to increase their return on recurrent investment.

A recent paper by the Australian Institute of Criminology suggested the Realist Evaluation methodology may be the most effective way for local council to measure the effectiveness of their system in meeting desired outcomes. We have used this methodology with five councils across three Australian states and our partners have found it effective and efficient. It requires listening to people doing the work on the ground, and linking their knowledge with published evidence and theoretical frameworks.

We have been able to help councils sharpen their ability to measure the outcomes which they are seeking to achieve, define a series of contexts in which these outcomes are applicable, and identify and test intervention mechanisms which make a difference to these outcomes in these contexts. In my far from humble opinion, this may have contributed to the 100 per cent success rate for CCTV infrastructure grant applications for which we provided high level advice in the recent National Crime Prevention Grant round.

Back to the argument. The Realist Evaluation methodology sits within the broader scientific epistemology of ‘Realism’. The Realist mantra is that it aims to understand what works for whom in what circumstances. A member of the same family as Realist Evaluation is a method known as ‘Realist Synthesis’. Basically, what Realist Synthesis does is allow policy makers or researchers to perform a literature review and analysis of published studies in order to identify what worked and what did not in the projects which are analysed, and tries to understand why. If you are interested in how to do this, go to the ‘Biomed Central’ website and search for “RAMESES publication standards” by Wong and Pawson et al.

This method has an explanatory focus and can be applied retrospectively. It provides a pathway through which policy makers can conduct a desktop exercise of previously funded CCTV projects to identify the active causal mechanisms which make CCTV programs effective in different Australian cities. Or identify barriers to effectiveness. Traditional reviews using the Campbell Collaboration protocols often find that the evidence of program effectiveness is mixed or conflicting. They also provide few insights as to why the intervention worked or did not work when applied in different circumstances, or was implemented by different stakeholders. A 2009 paper by Welsh and Farrington explicitly noted these problems regarding CCTV.

With more than one hundred project evaluation reports into funded CCTV systems currently sitting in government archives, there is a goldmine of data. There is a valid scientific process to systematically and transparently synthesise these evaluations to unpick the findings from these projects.

Realist Synthesis disaggregates previous projects to identify different intervention mechanisms, different contexts in which these interventions occur, and highly precise outcome measures. It strips back previous projects to their core theoretical underpinnings. Realist Evaluation measures the application of core theories to complex interventions in social settings as projects are designed and progress. Although it is early days, where the method has been applied, combining synthesis reviews with evaluation case studies has provided new insights.

The beauty of combining Realist Synthesis with Realist Evaluation through a national funding framework is that it lets policy makers and funders isolate different theoretical aspects of projects, and trial them in a real-world, not-quite-randomised, semi-controlled way. This can build an integrated, cumulative evidence base. There is an ongoing commitment to funding CCTV projects in the future. Better evidence would be useful to maximise this future investment.

If the Crown wishes to spend more public funds so council infrastructure will continue to assist police in the identification and prosecution of offenders, it appears to be a sound policy decision. Apart from mentions in the classic 1995 work by Brown, I have found little research which documents the cost saving to the criminal justice system through the use of footage as evidence. Anecdotally though, the case for significant cost saving seems overwhelming, and on balance probably by itself justifies the tens of millions of dollars spent on CCTV infrastructure in the past 15 years.

Nevertheless, I suggest that with such an extensive existing evidence base, a validated method to interrogate it, a centralised funding framework to test the results of the analysis, and a commitment to continue spending money on CCTV, far more value can be obtained. In my last opinion piece for Security Solutions Magazine, I suggested the lack of funding for evaluation of CCTV infrastructure was due to a lack of clarity around appropriate methods. The Realist framework outlined in this piece can provide some hard evidence on which to begin to build a cohesive, national strategy for CCTV. There is potential for a new way. Political vision and a little bit of will is all that is needed.

Boris Pointing is the Senior Research Officer at The Cairns Institute, James Cook University & Consulting Director, Independent Governance Specialists for CCTV.