Thursday, 18 October 2007

Into the bunker

Last night, as part of the councillors' training programme, I went on a visit to the CCTV control centre. Located in the bunker under the Town Hall, accessed by an anonymous door in the rear of the building, we entered a twilight world of flickering monitors arrayed around two sides of a room, controlled by three operators equipped with joysticks, buttons, microphones and a refreshingly laid-back group mentality. I guess there's not much they haven't seen over the years.

First, we had a very interesting discussion with two senior administrators, much of which went over my head as the techies in the group discussed the relative merits of the various systems available. Then, into the control room itself, through a system of doors and locks, presumably dating back to when this area was to be used as a command centre when the Russians dropped their bomb on Teesside. Unfortunately, their 2-1 victory in the football earlier in the afternoon had inflicted more damage than Mr Kruschev ever did on the town.

Excitingly, while we were there, a message came through from one of the pubs in town that a girl had complained that a group of lads in the pub had mugged her and stolen her purse. Immediately the operator swung into action. A group of lads and girls piled out of the pub and were seen on the pavement outside. They split into two groups, 5 or 6 girls who headed for the Market Place and 5 lads and a couple of girls who headed in the opposite direction.

Following them on their journies across town, from camera to camera, and in constant radio contact with the local police. the operator was able to direct police officers on foot and in a patrol car, to the exact location of the suspect groups.

I don't know whether there were any arrests, but, if they'd wanted to impress a group of visiting councillors, it couldn't have been done much better than that.

At the same time, I did have a sense of unease - particularly about the talking cameras. There is something so Big Brother about a voice booming out at someone for dropping some litter. Is it just taking the surveillance society one step too far?

Earlier in the evening, apparently, one of the operators had felt it necessary to use the speakers to ask a group of skateboarders to move on from the Pedestrian Heart. While we were there, he was keeping an occasional eye on a couple of BMX riders in front of the Pease statue. As he said, "They built the biggest playground in Darlington when they built the Pedestrian Heart". While there are large notices in the room reminding the operators of their responsibilities under human rights and privacy legislation - and the operators themselves were very aware of their duties in this respect - I am concerned that having someone sitting in a bunker under the Town Hall using a loudspeaker to move skateboarders on, or tell people to pick up litter, is a little over the top, and needs to be watched (no pun intended) carefully. We need to be very careful before applying this more generally.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.

You are right to be concerned about CCTV.

Your posting reminds me of the quote by A. P. Herbert "Let's find out what everyone is doing and then stop everyone from doing it."

There were similar concerns from residents bordering Springfield Park about CCTV in the park being able to see ito their houses, but Nick Wallis quickly dispelled the concerns that CCTV could not do so.

Personally I do not see the value of having CCTV in a park which is two or three miles away from the monitoring station in the town centre, especially where it does not result in a police or warden presence as a result or by the time there is a reaction the incident could be over. CCTV is only valuable if there is an immeidate response or if the trouble makers can be easilly identified.