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The Metropolitan Police is the first force in the world to set up a dedicated CCTV unit to radically change the way officers use CCTV evidence in criminal investigations. Carol Jenkins looks at how the new unit operates.
The UK is considered a world-leader in its use of CCTV as an effective way of protecting the public and helping police in the investigation of crime and there are currently 4.2 million cameras in the UK - one for every 14 people.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of cameras being introduced over the past 20 years, there has been no standard system for controlling the gathering or identification of images in police forces. Recognising the need for such a system, DCI Mick Neville from the Met Police received the backing of his force to set up a pilot scheme called Operation Javelin in September 2006 in Southwark police station.
The Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (VIIDO) is the world’s first dedicated police unit with the aim of radically improving the way CCTV footage is processed. The unit, which is staffed by a team of officers and support staff, has now collected 2,300 images and has achieved 550 positive identifications – a 30 per cent success rate.
The performance of the unit is constantly improving and DCI Neville hopes that the success rate will increase to 70 per cent. Early indications show this will be achieved. Last year, the unit made a hundred identifications in six months. In the first six weeks of this year it achieved 112 positive identifications.
Operation Javelin has proved such a success that the force has now set up eight further VIIDOs with a further 24 planned to open in the next two years. VIIDO was borne out of the fact that CCTV hasn’t developed into a proper discipline in the way that fingerprint or DNA evidence has over the past few years,” explains DCI Neville.
“When we set up VIIDO we realised that there was a lack of performance culture around the use of CCTV. In the past, the onus has been on the frontline officer to gather the evidence, process the images and then see that through until the case reached court. They often don’t have the time or the expertise and so there is a danger that key evidence could be missed.”
Since its inception, VIIDO has enabled the force to focus on more effective collection of data and on establishing protocols for identifying and circulating images. The fact the unit has dedicated officers means they can build up an expertise in the discipline. VIIDO supervisors keep a regular check on the crimes committed over night and then task officers with gathering the evidence. Nick Findley, who is a VIIDO officer based at Brixton police station, has seen particularly success at the gathering of CCTV evidence because of the relationships he has forged with local agencies such as councils and bus companies.
“The quality of the CCTV footage that’s out there is on the whole of a very high standard,” he said. “I’ve gathered footage from unlikely places such as the city farm at Vauxhall so I’d advise other officers to keep an open mind when they are going about gathering footage in this way.”
When he has retrieved the footage, Mr Findley takes it back to the unit to analyse it and extracts the relevant stills from the footage. His work is checked and logged by the supervisor in order to preserve evidence. The CCTV stills are then sent to a central Met Circulation Unit (MetCU) run by DCI Neville.
PC Gemma Harvard, the project officer working on identification procedures then circulates the images to all Met officers via a dedicated site on the force intranet called Caught on camera”. Officers from each Met division are encouraged to log onto the site and help provide positive identifications of offenders. The images are also circulated to councils and police informants for their assistance in identifying offenders.
PC Harvard explains that the success of Operation Javelin is down to the fact the images are circulated to officers in the entire force rather than on just one division. “In the past, offenders were committing crimes in different parts of London and there was no way of us linking these crimes. The introduction of VIIDO has enabled us to build up valuable intelligence on offenders in a way that we weren’t able to do in the past.”
Once identifications are made, the MetCU produces a report which is forwarded to the local VIIDO for an evidential check. This is then sent to the crime manager, not the officer in the case, to make sure follow-up action is taken. One of the most innovative ways the VIIDOs have been achieving positive identifications of offenders is by analysing the distinctive clothes they are wearing when committing the crimes.
Distinguishing features such as designer logos, brightly coloured clothing and distinctive piping around the edge of a jumper have all be used to compare CCTV footage with other images of offenders in order to achieve a positive identification.
“What we’ve noticed is that offenders tend to wear the same clothing when committing their crimes. Often the clothing is quite distinctive and bright in colour so this provides us with another way of identifying them, especially in situations where their faces are covered.”
The force is now looking to develop this method of identification even further by piloting the latest cutting-edge technology that will be able to highlight these distinguishing features and search existing databases in a matter of seconds to achieve a positive identification.
Guildford-based biometrics company OmniPerception is the first company in the world to produce such software. Its Magellan Automated Brand Analysis and Logo Detection software is currently used in the world of sports marketing analysis. It provides the tools for the automatic identification, analysis and reporting of brand exposure and product placement in TV, film and other image communications media.
“Brand owners currently rely on the accuracy of Magellan to assess the impact of brand exposure against their sponsorship expenditure,” says David McIntosh, CEO of OmniPerception.
The company is currently developing a new version of the software called Gama to be used in a police and security context. The software will search the footage for the officer and then highlight any distinguishing features in a matter of seconds.
“What Gama does is to do an automatic trawl through CCTV footage to find out any distinctive item in the scene that might be of interest to the officers,” explains Mr McIntosh.
“This could be a vehicle, a piece of luggage, a logo on clothing or anything that has a distinctive shape or outline. It really is a mining tool that can be used to turn image data into really useful information.”
Mr McIntosh explains that at the moment, this information is “hidden away in vast archives of footage” and that officers don’t currently have the technology to help them retrieve information that could prove vital to an investigation.
This technology has the ability to save police valuable time because of the speed at which it can pick out distinguishing features. Standard video footage runs at 26 frames a second – Magellan runs at one frame a second and Gama runs 26 times faster. DCI Neville hopes the VIIDO project will shift the focus away from concentrating on the number of cameras and the quality of images to improving the gathering and identification of the evidence.
“I would suggest we don’t need any more cameras and what we don’t need is for forces and other organisations to become preoccupied with image quality,” he says.
“You can have a billion images and no matter what quality they are – they are of no use if you don’t target your resources into training the people to use these images in an effective way.”
The success of the Met’s project has been attracting interest from other forces not just in the UK but worldwide in countries including Japan, Germany and Sweden. It has also acted as a valuable deterrent against further crimes being committed as criminals are becoming more aware of the work of the VIIDO units.
DCI Neville hopes that in future years VIIDO will become a national unit with regional hubs and that CCTV footage will be circulated throughout the 43 forces to provide a national intelligence picture – something that has never been done before. “This will have a huge impact on our ability to fight crime because it will mean, that like fingerprints, there will be a national database of information that officers can search through to provide a positive identification of offenders.”
He predicts this will help transform the way CCTV is used in evidence in the police service. “I hope that the work we’ve been carrying out will professionalise the use of CCTV as evidence in the police service and that it will lead to the creation of specialist operational investigative units staffed by the highest calibre of experts.”