Conference report: Police embracing CCTV as a forensic discipline

The London riots in 2011 were a wake-up call for the Metropolitan Police Service and its use of CCTV. That’s according to DCI Mick Neville who organised a conference last week at New Scotland Yard called “Improving the use of CCTV: Lessons learnt from the disorder”.

Neville was instrumental in the creation of the MPS’s Circulation Unit which pioneered the forensic use of CCTV footage to identify suspects in criminal cases.

Operation Withern, which is being wound up now but still continues to yield identifications, saw nearly 5000 people arrested and 3140 charged, with convictions being achieved against 82 per cent of those charged.

It is by all accounts an unprecedentedly successful conviction rate, with CCTV reportedly making the difference in terms of convictions and length of custodial sentences.

Speakers at the conference – which saw more than 100 delegates attend from police, public authority CCTV systems and other sectors of the security industry – were:

  • Det Supt Bill Lyle, senior investigating officer on Operation Withern
  • DCI Mick Neville, Central Forensic Imaging Team
  • A/PS Paul Smith, Area Identification Team
  • Simon Gordon, Facewatch Ltd
  • Dr Josh Davis, University of Greenwich – an expert on super recognisers
  • PC Pat Horgan, Operation Withern viewing team

Neville explained the purpose of the conference: “there were 5000 people arrested and the vast majority of them were from CCTV, so it’s all the lessons that we learned, good and bad… no one has ever said the police need this, the police don’t need that, so the key aim is to put across those lessons that we learned from the riots.”

He said the police and the security industry could both learn lessons. “The police themselves always need to learn lessons, we aren’t unique, but the people who fit CCTV – if they are fitting CCTV, we are saying, we don’t just need cameras in the corners, we need cameras at face level for future recognition.”

His team has prepared a DVD called “CCTV: the lessons learnt” which uses footage from the riots to illustrate common mistakes as well as best practice.

The key lesson from the video? “Not only do we need the evidence of the offence, we need a face to identify, and the more front on that face is, the better. But I commend my DVD, Lessons Learnt, and we will be pushing that around the industry,” Neville said.

One of the lessons to come out to riot investigation was the value of so-called “super recognisers”, people who have an uncanny ability to memorise faces and then recognise them. They are so good at facial recognition that they can achieve hits from some amazingly poor quality CCTV, and can remember faces from years in the past.

Dr Josh Davis from the University of Greenwich in London is an authority on super recognisers and has done a lot of work with the MPS.

“I have now been doing work on police super recognisers in the MPS to see how good they are, and they are exceptionally good at face recognition. They seem to learn new faces better than most people. They also seem to have a much larger memory for faces, for people they have seen in the past, and it seems to last for a very long time. Some of the tests we have done used images of celebrities that were about 12 years old at the time and they were much better than other members of the public, of about the same age, at recognising people,” he said.

Super recognisers are defined as being in the top one or two per cent of the population as measured against standardised tests.

In the real world, outside of test conditions, this can make a big difference to the police when investigating crimes. “If they do see a CCTV image of someone they have seen before, or even an image of someone they have seen before, they can make that link far more effectively than the rest of us,” Davis said. “So therefore they are far more likely to be able to name that person to start with but also to say, I saw that person in another CCTV image say six months ago. Maybe we have identified who that person was from that old and then we can link the two crimes together. So that’s where their skill is.”

Around 200 super recognisers have been identified in the MPS so far but Davis is hopeful of being able to identify more. They work in a range of jobs from neighbourhood policing to custody suites – anywhere where they will come into contact with a large number of potential criminals.

“My message is that I think all police forces could use the skills – because they are bound to have some super recognisers in their forces,” he said.

Det Supt Bill Lyle was the lead investigator on Operation Withern, the largest investigation of public disorder ever in the MPS, possibly the world.

He has found CCTV to be invaluable for investigating public disorder, having also used it for public disorder around football matches.

“The massive amount of CCTV evidence which is available has made the Metropolitan Police and other police forces around the country sit up and take notice and make sure they are getting their act together, in terms of finding the CCTV, putting it into a format that they can use to identify offenders, interviewing suspects and then ultimately putting that evidence before the courts to convict offenders,” Lyle said.

The use of CCTV in investigations tends to be more focused then it  used to be, collating images of suspects and then taking those out to community for identification. “In relation to the riot investigation, we went into shopping centres,” he said. “We put boards out, we put them on sides of vehicles, so really it’s any particular way we can identify offenders.”

He added: “Police forces around the world realise that CCTV has moved on now and it’s a specialism now, it’s something that should be considered along with fingerprints and DNA.

“I was asked a good question recently – why is it good to have CCTV evidence before a court? Forensic evidence you have to explain what it is and how it got there. With CCTV, you are basically showing a judge and jury what happened and it’s live.

“You are not relying on police officers giving evidence, saying this is what happened, members of the public, victims saying this is what happened. You are still doing that, but at the end of it you are saying, here is exactly what I just described.

“It is literally a picture of a criminal offence, a picture of what took place, supported by other evidence, but really it’s making the jury’s job much easier,” he said.

“So the conviction rates speak for themselves, and whole judicial system has to wake up. When Withern started, we had two courts that you could show CCTV evidence, now we have got many many more courts, so things are moving forward.

“I think it comes down to the fact that years ago CCTV was a grey, terrible picture of someone doing something. These days the images are excellent, we can zoom in to – get really close to the criminals face. So the advances have assisted, but now we have to catch up with those advances and put processes in place,” Lyle concluded.

Metropolitan Police Service Central Forensic Imaging Team

For more information about the DVD “CCTV: the lessons learnt”, contact DCI Mick Neville at

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