Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) and Crime Prevention

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) and Crime Prevention – Understand


Video surveillance or closed circuit television (CCTV) was originally developed in an attempt to prevent crime in private spaces, such as banks and shopping centres. Over the past three decades it has increasingly been used in efforts to prevent crime and improve safety in public places, such as parks, transport interchanges, shopping/business districts. Most major cities throughout the world have now installed an extensive array of CCTV cameras that are linked to control rooms which are equipped with video monitors in order to monitor the designated public spaces with a view to discouraging criminal offending and improving perceptions of safety in these areas. The technology in this field, both hardware and software, has advanced exponentially in recent years with vehicle license plate recognition and facial recognition capability having become the industry standard. Furthermore, the cutting-edge CCTV systems that are currently been rolled out in countries such as India and the United Kingdom have notably incorporated thermal imaging and aspects of artificial intelligence in an effort to predict certain types of criminal offending (such as robbery and sexual assault) before they take place.

CCTV is presently being used in some degree in all major cities in South Africa, with some of the biggest cities, particularly Johannesburg and Cape Town, having recently invested considerable resources in expanding and upgrading their existing systems. Other cities are most likely to invest significant sums in upgrading and expanding CCTV systems in the coming years. It is no surprise that CCTV has been an attractive crime prevention tool for city authorities given the very limited policing manpower over which they have direct control, and persistently high levels of urban crime. Furthermore, CCTV systems are visible and tangible indications that local government is attempting to improve public safety. There are however, drawbacks and complexities concerning the public use of CCTV, as well as considerable cost implications.

The aim of this article is to examine the available evidence relating to the crime prevention and safety promotion potential of CCTV systems, as well as discuss this in relation to the challenges and constraints that have been currently encountered city authorities in South Africa. In so doing, this article will highlight both the benefits, drawbacks and unintended consequences of using CCTV as a crime prevention instrument. 

CCTV, crime prevention and safety promotion: Theory and evidence

The general philosophy underpinning the use of CCTV as a crime prevention tool is that it creates an awareness among members of the public, especially potential offenders, that they are under surveillance and that there is a heightened risk of being apprehended by the authorities if a crime is committed. This notion, however, assumes that criminals, or potential criminals, are aware of the cameras; and think and act in a relatively rational manner, in that they will be discouraged from committing crimes in the areas covered by the CCTV cameras. These systems may also make members of the public more conscious of the possibility of being victims of crime, and hence may become more vigilant in this regard. The installation of CCTV cameras may also improve perceptions of safety in these specific areas, which contributes a greater number of people accessing the area and thereby increasing the level of natural surveillance. Furthermore, there is a widely held view that CCTV can have a ‘diffusion effect’, namely that it can contribute to crime reductions in adjacent areas (where there are no CCTV cameras).

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the introduction of CCTV cameras have contributed to reductions in various crimes and by-law violations in surveillance areas, but most of the studies have been undertaken in middle- to high-income countries. A 2009 systematic review of rigorous studies relating to the crime prevention impact of CCTV in the US and UK concluded that CCTV resulted in a modest reduction in various crimes, especially theft and robberies in focal areas. Studies indicated that it had been the most effective in car parks (more than a 50% decrease) and public transport schemes (23% reduction), while crime decreases in city/town centres had been negligible (7% decrease) [1]. Studies in South Korea showed up to a 47% reduction in the number of robberies and thefts in the areas with CCTV installed, and a decrease in the fear of crime, while control areas without CCTV cameras did not experience such reductions [2, 3]. In Taiwan, research showed that CCTV had “an overall marginal yet noteworthy influence” on reported crime [4]. A study in Medellin, Colombia indicated that CCTV had resulted in a 23.5% drop in reported crime in the targeted areas [5]. In Mexico City, researchers attributed a reduction in non-violent crime in specific areas to the installation of CCTV systems [6]. Of critical importance, research has emphasised that the crime prevention impact of CCTV systems can be significantly enhanced if they are closely coupled with proactive policing [7].

To date, however, no systematic or rigorous research has been undertaken on the crime prevention impact of CCTV cameras in public spaces in South Africa. This is somewhat surprising given the increasing amount of resources that have been invested in CCTV in South African urban areas over the years. Nonetheless, descriptive studies and research based on limited opinion survey data on CCTV and crime in South Africa has suggested that where CCTV systems have been effectively implemented they have resulted in reductions in reported crime in the focal areas. This is especially the case when these systems have been linked to dedicated policing responses [8, 9]. Furthermore, law enforcement spokespersons from cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg have publicly claimed that CCTV systems have had crime reduction effects, although these claims have not been subjected to thorough independent assessment.

Installation, sustainability and effectiveness of CCTV systems

Studies have shown that CCTV can have significant crime reduction effects, but this is highly dependent on a range of factors, the most relevant being:

Factors influencing impact of CCTV on crime reduction

Camera location

Cameras should have comprehensive and unobstructed coverage of the target areas

Camera capability

Cameras should have the capacity to record continuously, both during day-time and night-time, as well as in a multiplex manner (capability to link recordings from different cameras from a specific incident). The cameras also need to be able record high definition images and have pan, tilt and zoom capability. More modern cameras have the added advantage of vehicle license plate recognition and facial recognition capability.

Camera robustness

Camera systems should be able to consistently withstand harsh and adverse weather conditions and be installed and housed in such a manner that they cannot easily be damaged, and/or disabled (including gunshot damage).

Control room capability

CCTV control rooms should have the appropriate number of monitors that display, in real-time, high resolution footage from the CCTV cameras. Suitably trained control room operators should be able to control any of the CCTV cameras at will, and the system software should include algorithms and/or artificial intelligence to assist operators with the identification of threats/risks, and in the tracking of suspects and suspicious vehicles. There should also be a sufficient number of operators in the control at any one time. Furthermore, the control room should have communication systems that enable easy communication with police and other relevant authorities.

Police/law enforcement response

The law enforcement/police should have the capacity and organisational arrangements to respond timeously and professionally to relevant incidents identified by the CCTV system/operators.

Public perception of effectiveness

Members the public who that make use of the CCTV focus areas should perceive that the CCTV improves public safety in these areas.

Offender perceptions

Offenders and potential offenders should perceive that that there is a high risk of being apprehended should they commit a crime in the CCTV focus areas.

Budget provision

In order for CCTV systems to be sustainable city authorities should make the necessary provisions in annual budgets for the maintenance, upgrades and expansion of the CCTV system (including law enforcement and data analysis).

Relationship management

City authorities should ensure that good working relations are maintained between all the key stakeholders associated with the crime prevention aspects of the CCTV system.

Prior to the installation of, or major upgrades to CCTV systems, studies have shown that city authorities should undertake comprehensive audits of crime rates and crime patterns with a view to determining the best possible locations for the CCTV cameras. Furthermore, robust and detailed partnership arrangements with the relevant policing agencies, and possibly even include relevant neighbourhood watch structures, improvement districts and private security companies.

The medium- to long-term effectiveness and sustainability of CCTV systems is also linked to ability of those responsible for the CCTV systems to regularly analyse important data relating to crime incidents and thereafter incorporate these learnings to improve the system and policing responses.

Potential drawbacks CCTV systems

Crime displacement

A key concern of crime prevention experts and professionals in relation to CCTV systems is that such systems may merely displace crime from the focal areas to other parts of the city. Studies, however, have shown mixed results, with some researchers indicating that CCTV systems have resulted in some crime displacement [10, 11]; while others have suggested that there has been no significant displacement effect [3, 12]. Nonetheless, across the board, where there has been a reported crime displacement effect, the increase in crime in adjacent areas is usually lower than the reduction in reported crimes in the CCTV focal areas [1].

Criminals: surveillance avoidance

The installation of CCTV systems may result in offenders wearing clothing and accessories in order to obscure their faces in an effort to avoid identification [13]. However, the more modern CCTV systems have the capability to develop algorithms that can detect and monitor styles of dressing and suspicious behaviour.

Privacy considerations

The use of CCTV cameras to monitor persons in public spaces has a number of complex implications in terms of privacy rights and legislation. That is, CCTV surveillance systems may result in violations of individual rights and privacy protections. This is particularly in relation to what data is collected, as well as how the data is collected, used and stored. Therefore, cities need to develop by-law frameworks (which are in line with the Constitution) that specify the privacy protections of CCTV for crime prevention systems, and the oversight mechanisms thereof. In particular, these frameworks should specify that visible signage be displayed indicating that CCTV camera are in use. In addition, operators should be employed by city authorities who are then required to adequately respond to questions and concerns that may be raised by members of the public. CCTV operators and data analysts should be professionally trained and beholden to ethical and legal standards and rules; and there should be appropriate sanctions and disciplinary action if such rules and standards are violated. In addition, these frameworks, rules and standards should be available to the public, as well as information relating to the manner in which the CCTV data is secured and stored.

Inadequate police collaboration due to increased surveillance

Due to the increased surveillance of crime and the related policing of focal areas, some police agencies may be unwilling to adequately support CCTV systems. This is especially the case for those policing agencies that are not directly accountable to city authorities; and/or experience low levels of staff morale, a lack of professionalism and have been regularly implicated in street-level corruption. Establishing framework agreements between the various policing agencies that will be directly affected by the CCTV systems may improve collaboration and buy-in.

Risk of a loss of public confidence

The installation of CCTV systems without an adequate long-term plan and budget provisions could be a considerable governance risk for the entire city government and could result in a significant decline in public confidence. This is particularly in cases when cameras have not been repaired and/or the control rooms are not adequately staffed, and this subsequently becomes public knowledge.

Current CCTV environment in South Africa and existing challenges

The use of CCTV in South Africa’s major cities for crime prevention purposes by government authorities dates back to the mid-1990s, and was primarily driven by Business Against Crime of South Africa (BACSA). At the time there was considerable optimism that these systems would result in significant crime reductions and arrests of offenders. A key aspect was that agreements were struck that made practical provisions for the metro police to collaborate with the South African Police Services (SAPS), particularly with respect to responding to crime incidents identified on the CCTV systems.[1]

Over the years, however, city authorities have taken a more central role in introducing, managing and upgrading CCTV systems geared towards crime prevention. Nonetheless, these developments have mostly taken place on a unilateral basis, which has resulted in South African cities having different levels of CCTV coverage, capability and capacity. To date there appears to have been very little discussion between city authorities about the use of CCTV, as well as experiences and lessons identified from individual cities. Cape Town and Johannesburg appear to have invested the most resources with regards to CCTV systems.*

As of April 2018 the City of Cape Town reported that it had access to a total of 1,544 cameras, as well as access to 513 privately registered CCTV cameras [14]. There is a dedicated Camera Response Unit that has been created to respond to actual and potential safety, security and emergency incidents [15]. It was reported in 2018 that the monitoring of CCTV footage by the Metro Police resulted in the opening of an average of 29 criminal cases [16]. In Hanover Park, which is renowned for gang violence, CCTV has been linked to ShotSpotter, which is a system developed in the US that draws on a series of specialised sensors in order to pinpoint the location of gunshot incidents and then relays this information to law enforcement officials in terms of a mapping interface [17]. However, there is a lack of a solid working partnership between the metro police and SAPS in relation to the monitoring and response to CCTV incidents.

In Johannesburg, the CCTV system initially focused on the city centre, where there was a control room based in the Carleton Centre where staff monitored approximately 200 cameras, and entailed a robust partnership between BACSA, metro police and SAPS. When the system was fully operational it was estimated that it took police an average of 60 seconds to respond to incidents on the ground [18].  As of 2018 city authorities had responsibility for some 476 cameras, but the Chief of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, David Tembe, reported in August 2018 that only 284 of these CCTV cameras were in working order due to vandalism, power failures and damage to fibre cables by construction companies. Furthermore, Tembe indicated that the CCTV system did not cover key crime hotspots, and was not adequately linked to metro police that were on patrol [19]. However, there is a major upgrade and expansion of the CCTV system being currently underway, with new cameras being introduced that have both licence plate and facial recognition technology and can rotate 360 degrees [20]. In addition, a private telecommunications company is currently operating 1,000 cameras in 48 suburbs of Johannesburg, and is planning to install up to 15,000 CCTV cameras throughout Johannesburg and plans to make their cameras available to accredited private security companies, the metro police and SAPS at a fee [21]. This development, however, had led to civil society organisations raising concerns about the privacy implications of a commercial company collecting and selling CCTV footage for profit without the consent of those being filmed [22].

Other cities, such as Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay have also experienced challenges with regards to their CCTV systems. The City of Tshwane, which reportedly has responsibility for some 391 CCTV cameras, has also had acute problems with damaged and dysfunctional CCTV cameras, mainly due to adverse weather and vandalism [23]. There have also reportedly been challenges with regards to the service provider responsible for managing the CCTV system not adequately maintaining the cameras and monitoring the footage from the cameras [24]. A spokesperson for the City has recently indicated that there are plans for the metro police to expand the CCTV system, as well as reintroduce a Rapid Response Unit linked to the CCTV system (which had previously been disbanded), but raised concerned about the lack of support from SAPS [23]. In Nelson Mandela Bay, John Best, the chair of the Safety and Security portfolio stated in August 2018 the City’s CCTV system was obsolete and unreliable (following the cancelling of a contract with a service provider), and that there were plans to upgrade the system [25].

Mangaung, Buffalo City, Ekurhuleni, Msunduzi and eThekwini have been in the process of installing and/or upgrading CCTV systems in recent years, and some of these upgrades have involved partnerships with the private sector. In Msunduzi, the City has established a partnership with the Safe City Initiative in relation to CCTV monitoring of some 69 cameras and reportedly has had a good working relationship with SAPS [26]. In eThekwini, city authorities entered into a contract with a major cellular telecommunications company to expand the CCTV infrastructure throughout the city, but has encountered organised objections from residents groups out of concerns that the communication mast may have negative health implications for residents [27].

* For more details on the CCTV implementation period in major South African cities between 1995 and 2005 see A. Minnaar ‘The implementation and impact of crime prevention / crime control open street Closed-Circuit Television surveillance in South African Central Business Districts, Surveillance & Society Special Issue on ‘Surveillance and Criminal Justice’ Part 1, 4(3): 174-207.


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