ROSS CLARK: I used to loathe CCTV cameras, but now I know they are vital – as Wayne Couzens might never have been caught without it
As someone who once wrote a book condemning the surveillance society, I have to admit the story of Wayne Couzens makes salutary reading.
Without CCTV, this sadistic killer might never have been caught – or nowhere near as quickly – for the vile kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year.
Officers managed to track this monster’s movements thanks to hours of ‘dashcam’ footage from cars and buses, footage from shops and cafes and even new doorbell cameras attached to people’s homes.
Combined with other technology such as number plate recognition software and mobile phone ‘triangulation’, it made for an unequivocal case.
Without it, Couzens might not have pleaded guilty and instead inflicted on Sarah’s family the additional torment of a lengthy trial.
Without CCTV, Wayne Couzens might never have been caught for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. Pictured: Couzens staged his fake arrest to lure Sarah Everard into his car
Sentencing Couzens, 48, to spend the rest of his life in prison yesterday, Lord Justice Fulford said: ‘The compelling CCTV compilation, the product of 1,800 hours of footage, along with the cell site [mobile phone] evidence, revealed with absolute clarity the core essentials of what had occurred.’
And Sarah’s case is not the only one where such footage may prove vital. According to reports, CCTV footage shows last month’s deadly attack on Sabina Nessa, 28, as well as her movements through the south-east London park where her body was found.
In light of the many such crimes solved thanks to CCTV, fewer people nowadays complain that surveillance cameras are a menace that threaten our freedom. That battle has long been lost.
The same is true, I believe, of the DNA database, which in recent years has solved several cold-case murders.
The database didn’t even exist when Christopher Hampton murdered 17-year-old Melanie Road in Bath in 1984, and for years he must have thought he had got away with the crime. Yet five years ago he was jailed for life after DNA evidence linked him to the scene.
Britain now has an estimated 4-6 million CCTV cameras. They do important work, and without them, policing would be put back years and murderers and rapists would be harder to snare.
Without CCTV, Couzens might not have pleaded guilty and instead inflicted on Sarah’s family the additional torment of a lengthy trial. Pictured: Sarah Everard
Sentencing Couzens to spend the rest of his life in prison yesterday, Lord Justice Fulford said the CCTV footage ‘revealed with absolute clarity the core essentials of what had occurred’
So yes, my thinking on the subject has evolved since I wrote my book The Road to Southend Pier: One Man’s Fight Against the Surveillance Society, back in 2007. For one thing, the technology has improved massively.
My chief bugbear back then – I never was so concerned abut people having their ‘privacy’ infringed when they were caught on camera in a public place – was that police officers and security guards were being ditched in favour of CCTV cameras that didn’t even work.
At that time, four out of five CCTV images requested by police and the courts proved to be useless because they were too fuzzy, the cameras were pointing the wrong way, they had run out of film or for some other reason.
The truth is that there are still problems in this regard – not least those identified by the Mail’s powerful investigation into ‘smart’ motorways this week.
This paper’s undercover reporter found that CCTV cameras that were supposed to ensure the safety of motorists stranded on these motorways were often either not working, pointing the wrong way or obscured.
But these are side issues. And while I welcome the technology that allowed police to catch Couzens so quickly, I am not ready to give three cheers to the surveillance society: two is plenty.
I still have deep misgivings about how many of these cameras are being used.
Catching a murderer and rapist is one thing. But just as I warned in my book in 2007, powerful surveillance techniques are still being used far too freely to issue automatic fines for the most minor offences.
For every Wayne Couzens, there are hundreds of thousands of motorists fined up to £160 for straying into a bus lane, often for just a few yards.
And Sarah’s case is not the only one where such footage may prove vital. According to reports, CCTV footage shows last month’s deadly attack on Sabina Nessa (pictured), 28
One London council, meanwhile, held a trial using DNA from dog waste to fine owners whose animal had fouled public places. Other councils have expressed a desire to use a national dog DNA database for the same thing.
This strikes me as a horrible misuse of DNA technology.
I accept that CCTV, the DNA database and so on are here to stay, but what we need – and have never had – is a debate on the limits of their use.
Without clear rules, law enforcement becomes skewed: police and council enforcement officers tend to concentrate on the offences that are easiest to solve, rather than the most serious ones.
So let’s have CCTV cameras but forbid footage from being used for issuing fines for minor offences.
As for the DNA database, I now think we should put everyone on it at birth (not just those questioned by police as happens now), but simultaneously pass a law limiting it to be used for certain purposes, such as investigating the most serious crimes.
Hardened criminals are fair game for any surveillance – but using cameras to fine otherwise law-abiding people for trivial breaches of the rules is terrible over-reach.