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CCTV and PolicingPublic Area Surveillance and Police Practices in Britain$

Benjamin J. Goold

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780199265145

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199265145.001.0001

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(p.203) 8 Conclusions
CCTV and Policing

Benjamin J. Goold

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book has addressed two questions: How has the introduction of CCTV affected policing practices in Britain? What does the police response to CCTV tell us about the future of policing? It finds that the spread of CCTV has had little significant impact on the practices and organization of the police in the Southern Region. Regardless of whether CCTV schemes are run by the police or local authorities, officers on the street and in the station have not rushed to embrace this new technology or integrate it into their daily work routines. Instead, most have simply acknowledged the presence of the cameras and continued to go about the task of policing as they have always done. Aside from raising important questions about the way in which the police adapt to technological change, this book highlights the need for a re-examination of some of our central assumptions about the relationship between surveillance and social control.

Keywords:   CCTV, Britain, policing, Southern Region, surveillance, social control, technological change, police

One creates a machine for a particular and limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover, always to our surprise, that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but…of changing our habits of mind.

Neil Postman1

A major problem with many contemporary accounts of new technologies is their implied determinism. Technological innovation is all too frequently seen as the prime mover, producing information societies and even cyber societies…Such idolatries follow the ancient pattern of mystification and dependency-creation, not to mention a signal failure to produce the promised goods.

David Lyon2

In Chapter 1, two questions were identified as the primary concerns of this book. The first—how has the introduction of CCTV affected policing practices in Britain?—has largely been answered. Contrary to the expectations of many politicians, academics, and civil libertarians, this study finds that the spread of CCTV has had little significant impact on the practices and organization of the police in the Southern Region. Although some elements of police resource management and discipline have improved as a result of the introduction of CCTV, there have been no major changes in the way in which the towns included in this study are policed or patrolled. Regardless of whether CCTV schemes are run by the police or local authorities, officers on the street and in the station have not rushed to embrace this new technology or integrate it into the daily work (p.204) routines. Instead, most have simply acknowledged the presence of the cameras and continued to go about the task of policing as they have always done.

The second critical question—what does the police response to CCTV tell us about the future of policing?—is the subject of this final chapter. Since the publication of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, criminologists and social theorists have speculated about how continuing advancements in surveillance technology will affect policing. For many, the introduction of CCTV in the early 1990s marked the beginning of the end for traditional forms of policing and social control, and a major step towards the establishment of a ‘maximum surveillance society’. However, having now seen how little policing has in fact changed as a result of the introduction of CCTV, there is a need to re-examine this view, and with it much of our thinking about the relationship between the police and the technology of surveillance.

8.1 Techno-police or ‘business as usual’?

Underlying much of the concern about recent developments in the area of public surveillance is a particularly deterministic account of how the police make use of new technologies. Although the alarmist works of social theorists like Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan are now rarely if ever referred to directly by writers interested in questions of policing and surveillance technology, their influence none the less remains apparent.3 Gary T. Marx, for example, has argued that policing has been transformed by the emergence of new surveillance technologies that have made covert observation both cheap and easy, While Marx is hardly a simple determinist, his description of a world in which total social control (p.205) has become a reality—the so-called ‘surveillance society’—relies heavily on a deterministic view of the spread of computer and information technology.4 According to McCahill and Norris, this deterministic tendency can also be found in the writings of criminologists concerned with the use of CCTV for crime prevention, as well as in many recent sociological works on the Panopticon and the spread of disciplinary power.5 Both of these strands of criminology and social theory are, it is argued, implicitly deterministic because of their willingness to assume that CCTV systems can only be used in certain, pre-defined ways—ways that inevitably bring about specific outcomes and institutional effects:

One thing that unites these two very different approaches is their tendency to take as given the way CCTV systems are applied in practice. It is assumed that either visual surveillance systems have been introduced to detect and prevent crime or to extend the disciplinary potential of panoptic systems. What is often missing in this literature is a detailed micro-sociological account of the construction and operation of visual surveillance systems in different institutional settings.6

While it is clear that deterministic theories continue to underpin many academic accounts of the spread of surveillance technology, their influence is even more explicit in the arguments of civil libertarians and privacy advocates. As has already been discussed in Chapter 1, civil liberties groups have been quick to portray the police as an organization extremely adept at incorporating new technologies such as CCTV into their existing surveillance and information networks. Similarly, privacy advocates have consistently maintained that strict laws and regulations are needed to prevent the police from using new data processing and information technologies to undermine individual privacy rights and due process protections in countries such as Britain and the United States.

Within the literature of policing, this view of the relationship between the police and new technology is often referred to as the (p.206) ‘techno-policing’ thesis. According to proponents of this thesis such as Sarah Manwaring-White, recent changes in the technology of policing are indicative of a qualitative shift in the whole nature of policing in our society, a sinister development that has taken place without any commensurate changes in constitutional and legal controls.7 Deterministic in character, the techno-policing thesis maintains that as new technologies are developed, they exert a powerful influence over the thinking of the police, driving them towards more authoritarian styles of policing and oppressive methods of social control. New surveillance technologies such as CCTV are seen as being particularly attractive to the police, as they promise to free the police of their dependence on the public for information, and give them greater power over their environment.

All of this assumes, of course, that the police are able to make effective use of technologies like closed circuit television. As Clive Walker has pointed out, the techno-policing thesis is based in part on a questionable assumption—that technical change is introduced and assimilated into the police service in a ‘calculated, controlled and ruthlessly efficient manner, and that the full implications of such change are understood’.8 However, as detailed in the previous chapters, the Southern Region Police were at least initially hesitant to adopt new CCTV technology. Furthermore, since becoming involved in the running of various CCTV schemes, local officers have made little effort to incorporate CCTV into their existing policing strategies and information networks. When they have done so, their attempts have been haphazard and superficial. Far from aggressively assimilating this new technology and being shaped by it, as the techno-policing thesis would predict, the Southern Region Police remain relatively unchanged by the introduction of public area CCTV.

Why has this been the case? Why are the police unable or unwilling to make greater use of CCTV, despite the apparent conviction of many individual officers that the technology has much to offer? In part, the answer to these questions lies with the particular circumstances that surrounded the introduction of CCTV to the Southern Region. The fact that the initial impetus behind the spread of CCTV came from local and central government meant that the police were never fully committed to the idea of public area surveillance. Equally, it seems that concerns about being perceived as an insidious (p.207) ‘Big Brother’ blunted the impact of this technology on the force as a whole, with senior officers being hesitant to embrace the technology wholeheartedly and adjust overall policing strategies to accommodate the schemes.

The major reason for the failure to make extensive use of CCTV, however, appears to be far more fundamental than either of these factors. Put simply, the Southern Region Police made little use of CCTV because they were unwilling and unable to change existing practices to take advantage of the new technology. Although much of the literature of surveillance presents a picture of the police as a rational bureaucracy capable of easily assimilating new technologies and techniques, the reality is substantially different. Throughout the course of the research, the overwhelming impression of the police was one of inflexibility and conservatism, and of a failure on the part of senior management to engage with the opportunities and challenges presented by CCTV.

This organizational inflexibility should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the organization or working culture of the police. The police are notorious for being deeply suspicious of change, particularly when it comes to the management and execution of their core tasks such as street policing and order maintenance.9 According to Manning, ‘police organisations differ markedly from other organisations in ways that tend to amplify their conservative tendencies’, and, as Herman Goldstein rightly observes, it is this inherent conservatism that makes the police particularly ill-suited to absorbing new technologies.10 Although CCTV may offer the prospect of reduced police response times, better resource management, and improved police intelligence and surveillance networks, no actual change is likely to occur unless the police have a clear idea and a clear will to transform their existing practices in order to accommodate and exploit this new technology. As this book has demonstrated, the Southern Region Police have consistently failed to engage with this issue and as such remain largely unaffected by the introduction of public area CCTV to their region.

As with any study of this size, there is a question of how far its findings can be extended to the general case. Is there any reason to (p.208) believe that the response of the Southern Region Police has been somehow atypical when compared with that of other police forces across Britain? As was noted at the beginning of this book, one of the reasons why the Southern Region Police Force was chosen as the site for this research was because it is a large force, encompassing a wide area and a range of different CCTV schemes. In addition, the Southern Region has a reputation for being an innovative force, keen to test new policing techniques and to embrace multi-agency partnerships. If anything, then, there are good reasons to think that the Southern Region Force would be more receptive to the introduction of CCTV than many other forces in Britain. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that CCTV is likely to have had a major impact on policing strategies and practices across the rest of the country.

If all this is true, why does the techno-policing thesis continue to exert such influence over many academics and civil libertarians concerned with the spread of public area surveillance? If, in reality, CCTV does not significantly affect the way in which the police operate or organize themselves, why do pro-privacy organizations persist in maintaining that the police state is just around the corner? There are, of course, many possible answers to this question. On the one hand, unease over the use of CCTV by police is inexorably bound up with deeper concerns about the growing use and sophistication of surveillance technologies in society more generally. Taking this view, the spread of CCTV represents just one aspect of the move towards a Foucaultian future, a future in which public streets and shopping centres become modern Panopticons, and personal privacy is rendered virtually non-existent. Alternatively, it can be argued that much of the opposition to CCTV is motivated by a desire on the part of civil libertarians to prevent any expansion in existing police powers, and not by any larger concern about the growing pervasiveness of surveillance in society. While both of these arguments are persuasive, there is another, less obvious explanation for the popularity of the techno-policing thesis—namely that we fear CCTV because it provokes very specific and disturbing ‘Orwel-lian nightmares’.

8.2 Visions of dystopia

Looking at the discourse of surveillance and technology over the past fifty years, it is difficult to overestimate the impact that (p.209) Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has had on popular and academic imaginations. Stanley Cohen has noted that ‘key literary works of twentieth-century dystopianism have passed into popular consciousness’, bringing with them the spectre of a future in which state-sponsored surveillance has all but extinguished privacy and other forms of personal freedom,11 From, Brazil to GATTACA, contemporary pop culture is awash with images and ideas drawn directly from Orwell, Huxley, and others. Equally, academic writers have made extensive use of Nineteen Eighty-Four in their attempts to understand and explain the relationship between surveillance and social control. David Flaherty, for example, openly acknowledges using Orwell's world as a benchmark against which actual efforts to establish a ‘surveillance society’ can be measured, with each new technological advance being judged according to whether it brings us closer to the sort of nightmare envisaged in Nineteen Eighty-Four.12

Despite the fact that this image of the future provides a ready set of metaphors to frame our thinking about technology, surveillance, and social control, however, Orwell's vision has also induced a degree of collective myopia when it comes to debating the pros and cons of new technologies like CCTV. As Garland has noted, not only do ‘surveillance dystopias continue to exert their appeal’, they also inspire an underlying and often unconscious mistrust of any attempt by the government to learn more about us or aspects of our lives that we consider to be private.13 This is a point that has also been raised by the social theorist David Lyon:

[D]ystopian visions…have the virtue of directing our attention to the negative, constraining, and unjust aspects of surveillance, and of helping us to identify which kinds of trends are especially dangerous from this (p.210) point of view. But their disadvantage is that they thus exaggerate the negative by seeing only one side of surveillance, promote pessimism about whether such negative traits can be countered, and fail to offer any indication as to what the content of the alternative might be.14

It is this very mistrust that privacy groups have consistently relied upon in their campaign to ban technology like public area CCTV. Rather than produce evidence to show that the introduction of cameras has led to more authoritarian forms of policing, the prevailing tactic has instead been to draw parallels—however tendentious—between current developments and the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Unless we move away from this pessimistic and overly deterministic view of the relationship between surveillance and technology, developments like public area CCTV will continue to be greeted with suspicion and hostility. As Garland rightly points out, surveillance technologies like CCTV are inherently neutral, and not necessarily bound up with the exercise of authoritarian power by organizations such as the police.15 Instead, surveillance and social control can, in the right circumstances, be benign;

[I]t might be worth reminding ourselves of the positive senses of the word [surveillance]—‘inspection’, ‘superintendence’, ‘supervision’, ‘oversight’— and the indispensable need for such activity in spheres such as child-rearing, education, health or business, not to mention science and the acquisition of systematic knowledge.16

As this book has demonstrated, there is a pressing need for us to re-examine the ways in which we think about surveillance and to resist the pull of dystopic visions when looking at the impact of technology like CCTV. Cameras are not in and of themselves intrusive-they only become so when used in particular settings and in particular ways. Accordingly, it is important to determine whether those particular settings and particular ways coincide at all with (p.211) reality before looking for parallels in the fictionalized worlds of writers such as Orwell and Huxley. The introduction of new technology into an organization as complex and conservative as the police is rarely a simple affair, and as a result predicting how such technology will ultimately affect working practices is extremely difficult.

While surveillance technologies like CCTV have the potential to transform human institutions such as the police, these technologies are also shaped by the values and practices of those who use them. Norris writes, ‘CCTV in its operation and effects is contingent on a host of social, processes which shape how the technology is actually used. We simply cannot know in advance what CCTV is, means and does, and how effective it is since it is dependent upon its organisational implementation.’17 Rather than assume that organizations like the police are inevitably becoming more repressive as a result of the introduction of CCTV—or that the spread of public area surveillance technology is yet more evidence of the arrival of the ‘risk society’—this book has tried to provide insight into how cameras are actually being used by the police. Given how much has been written in recent years by about Panopticonism, insecurity, and the relationship between surveillance and social control, there is a danger that such issues have been largely removed from their real-life contexts and have become over-theorized.

Ironically, the need for more empirical explorations of surveillance was made some 30 years ago by one of the pioneers of surveillance theory. Writing in 1973, the sociologist James Rule sounded a clear warning to future researchers interested in the growth of mass surveillance, cautioning against the temptation to speculate on the outcome of some new technological development before first undertaking the ‘close documentation of existing practices and painstaking analysis of their relations to their social contexts’.18 For Rule, the central aim. was to discover how changes in the technology of surveillance bring about social change and to challenge those who—in their efforts to draw attention to the possibility of an Orwellian future—move too quickly from facts to inference and speculation:

[O]ne feels that the authors have stopped thinking critically, and instead are contenting themselves with playing to the grandstand of alarmed public (p.212) opinion…Such statements [about the possibility of a totalitarian future] are not factually incorrect; their speculative nature makes it impossible to submit them to proof or disproof. But they are unhelpful in that they carry speculation to such an extreme as to blur the distinction between the concrete, verifiable trends, and fancy.19

As the experience of the Southern Region Police demonstrates, speculative and deterministic predictions about how the police are likely to be affected by technologies like CCTV may be wide of the mark. Contrary to the expectations of both supporters and opponents of CCTV in the region and elsewhere, policing practices in the six towns included in this study did not change significantly as a result of the introduction of CCTV. Cameras alone do not make the police more repressive or authoritarian, any more than they make the police more effective or efficient.

8.3 Conclusions

Aside from raising important questions about the way in which the police adapt to technological change, the findings of this study point to the need for a re-examination of some of our central assumptions about the relationship between surveillance and social control. Writers such as Orwell and Foucault have been instrumental in shaping the way many criminologists and social theorists now think about questions of surveillance and its role in contemporary society. There is a danger, however, that unless we make more of an effort to understand how changes in the technology of surveillance actually affect institutions like the police, the theoretical literature of social control will become increasingly divorced from reality.

This book has attempted to provide, in McCahill and Norris's words, an account of ‘the construction and operation of visual surveillance systems’ in one particular institutional setting—the police.20 The findings presented here suggest that, while the spread of CCTV may one day result in a fundamental change in British policing, that change has not yet occurred. Furthermore, it is clear (p.213) that so long as the police remain committed to their existing methods of town centre policing and information gathering, there is little chance that current police practices in relation to the use of CCTV will change in the near future. Unless the organization and working culture of the police in Britain change, the technology of public area surveillance will continue to be little more than an adjunct to more traditional modes of policing. (p.214)


(1) N. Postman (1983) The Disappearance of Childhood (London: W. H. Allen), 24.

(2) Lyon (2001), 23–4.

(3) Lyon (2001), 111. According to Lyon, many sociological studies of policing, such as Gary T. Marx's Undercover Policing and Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggerty's Policing the Risk Society, begin with a ‘deferential nod towards Ellul’. For representative works, see: N. Postman (1993) Technopoly; The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York; Vintage); J. Ellul (1964) The Technological Society (New York: Vintage); M. McLuhan and Q. Fiore (1967) The Medium is the Message (New York: Bantam); and M. McLuhan and B. Powers (1989) The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press). McLuhan is perhaps most famous for coining the term ‘global village’ to describe what he saw as a newly emergent global society both linked and divided by the electronic mass media.

(4) According to Marx, ‘with computer technology, one of the final barriers to total social control is crumbling’. See G. T. Marx (1985) ‘The surveillance society: the threat of 1984-style techniques’ The Futurist (June), 21.

(5) McCahill and Norris (2002 a), 4. Specifically, McCahill and Norris point to work by Skinns and Tilley (on, questions of crime prevention) and by Reeve (on the subject of the Panopticon and power). See Skinns (1998); N. Tilley (1998) ‘Evaluating the effectiveness of CCTV schemes’ in Norris et al. (1998 b), 139; and Reeve (1998 a).

(6) McCahill and Norris (2002 a), 4.

(7) Manwaring-White (1983).

(8) Walker (1983), 694.

(9) See e.g. D. Bailey and E. Bittner (1985) ‘The tactical choices of police patrol officers’ Journal of Criminal Justice 14: 329; and Manning (1977).

(10) Manning (1992) 354; Goldstein (1990).

(11) S. Cohen (1985) Visions of Social Control (Cambridge: Polity Press), 202. For a survey of the ‘literature of dystopia’, see M. R. Hillegas (1967) The Future as Nightmare; H. G. Wells and the Anti-utopians (New York: Oxford University Press); F. Polak (1973) The Image of the Future (Amsterdam: Elsevier); C. Walsh (1962) From Utopia to Nightmare (New York: Harper and Row); and in particular F. G. Manuel and F. P. Manuel (1979) Utopian Thought in the Western World (Oxford: Blackweil). All four of these works are referred to by Cohen in his discussion of the dystopia literature and its impact on social theory.

(12) D. H. Flaherty (1989) Protecting Privacy in Surveillance Societies (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 6.

(13) Garland (1995).

(14) Lyon (1994), 204.

(15) See also J. Young (1999) The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late Modernity (London: Sage), 196–9. Walker also questions the implicit assumption made by proponents of the techno-policing thesis that technology is inherently malevolent. As he observes, how technology affects organizations like the police ‘all depends on how it is used, by whom, and under what conditions’. Walker (1983), 695.

(16) Garland (1995), 5.

(17) Norris (1997).

(18) Rule (1973), 34.

(19) Rule (1973), 32–3. Although Rule himself concedes that his interest in the topic of surveillance was initially sparked by reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, he stresses that as the underlying questions concerning the growth of mass surveillance are inherently sociological, they must be investigated using sociological methods.

(20) McCahill and Norris (2002 a), 4.