One of the hallmark images of the TV footage of the London riot has been the scenes of gangs of youths roaming the streets but protecting their identities with scarves, bandannas, and hooded sweatshirts.
Growing up in a country that has an estimated 1.85 million CCTV cameras – one of the highest numbers per population in the world – makes young people acutely aware that they can be identified and prosecuted.
But simply hiding their faces won't prevent rioters from being tracked down and hauled before courts, authorities say.
“A lot of these youths are wearing scarves to hide their faces but we’re not just reliant on that," said Martin Lazell, chairman of the Public CCTV Managers Association, the body representing council-run CCTV networks. "We can identify people on how they walk, their height, their clothes, shoes – all manner of things. People recognize people by what they wear and often, despite having full wardrobes, we tend to wear the same clothes most of the time. These people won’t be going home and burning their jeans, trainers, jackets, or coats so they can be identified and placed in an area.”
7,000 authority-run CCTV cameras in London
Mr. Lazell estimates there are around 7,000 authority-run CCTV cameras in London, which are usually better maintained and more modern than privately owned ones.
“Our members’ systems are well run and operated by conscientious operators who usually live in the areas they work. I’d be surprised if councils and police are not sitting down right now going through footage to identify these perpetrators," said Lazell. "They might think they can’t be identified, but they can. They often walk away from a main street and relax their guard not realizing they can still be seen – but they can be.”
That was confirmed by the acting commissioner of London's metropolitan police, Tim Godwin, who is standing in following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson in wake of the the British phone hacking scandal.
“Those involved in criminality should be under no illusion," said Mr. Goodwin. "We have been making arrests all evening and have a team working during the night examining CCTV images. We will follow up evidence in the coming days in order to bring anyone else responsible for criminal acts to justice."
Are the cameras deterring police?
The cameras can work both ways, however. Some are speculating that the police may have been reluctant to use tough tactics to quell the rioting for fear of being caught on camera and accused of excessive force.
The memory of newspaper salesman Ian Tomlinson is still fresh in some officer’s minds. The newspaper seller died in April 2009 in London during G20 protests after being struck by a policeman. The police originally denied wrongdoing, but video footage obtained by a newspaper showed he had been subject to "excessive and unreasonable" force leading to an inquest verdict of unlawful killing and manslaughter charges against the baton-wielding officer.
As for helping to catch rioters, one government advisory body fears that CCTV units will now be used to work outside their designed purpose.
“There are 70 points of law within the data protection act which operators have to adhere to," says Paul Mackie, chief executive at CameraWatch. "If they don’t, it makes prosecutions using CCTV much harder. A simple thing like having the wrong time out for a few seconds could totally undermine their use; so private operators must be aware of that – especially before next year’s Olympics.”
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