Philip Davies: Science of surveillance can boost our freedom

DNA, CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) are essential crime-fighting tools for detecting crimes, bringing people to justice, deterring criminals from committing further offences and acquitting the innocent.

One of our fundamental liberties is the right to walk the streets without fear of harm or harassment and as a staunch defender of freedom, I fear that the safety of our citizens will be negated by the double-edged sword of reducing these techniques at a time of budget cuts.

I want to be clear from the outset that I am not in favour of the misuse of CCTV cameras by councils for snooping purposes. I am primarily concerned with utilising CCTV for identifying and prosecuting criminals.

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A Scotland Yard study into the effectiveness of surveillance cameras revealed that 86 out of 90 murder cases over a one year period used CCTV during the investigation.

Scotland Yard’s head of homicide, Simon Foy, stated that “CCTV plays a huge role in helping us investigate serious crime. I hope people can understand how important it is to our success in catching people who commit murder”.

In fact, Stephen Griffiths – the “Crossbow Cannibal” who has been convicted of the murder of three prostitutes in Bradford and Shipley – was caught through the use of CCTV.

CCTV is not only an invaluable tool to the police, but also in courts. The footage provides a conclusive, unbiased account, void of someone’s spin or recollection. It is very different to argue with theseimages and they often lead to changes of pleas from not guilty to guilty.

Equally, CCTV can prove that someone is being wrongly accused of committing a crime, as was the case of Gary Wood in Newcastle, who was cleared in July 2009 of raping Natalie Jefferson who he had met in an internet chat room.

After police studied CCTV footage of his movements that night, officers realised that the woman was crying rape. She was jailed for 12 months after detectives saw through her lies.

This saves courts time and money and also prevents witnesses from having to experience the stressful and often upsetting situation of giving evidence.

I have been personally impressed by a new system, known as Facewatch. It is approved by the Association of Chief Police Officers, is privately funded and is potentially one of the best weapons available to us in the battle against low level crime.

It is an internet-based system for businesses such as shops, hotels and bars to report low level crime and upload just the relevant CCTV to the police.

Premises pay for the system and it is free to the police, enabling premises to share images instantly.

By providing instant crime references and a single number to call, this enables victims who may have their bags stolen to cancel and re-issue their credit cards free, helping negate the financial and emotional impact of personal theft crimes. I hope the Home Office are backing Facewatch.

In addition, the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition led to the capture of Sharon Beshenivsky’s killers in 2005 when the ANPR system tracked the getaway car used after the police officer was shot dead in Bradford, leading to the arrest of six suspects. At its launch, Chief Superintendent Geoff Dodd of West Yorkshire Police, called the ANPR system a “revolutionary tool in detecting crime”.

DNA has many similar merits to CCTV, but there is an ongoing argument that the profiles of “innocents” should be removed from the database.

However, a research study in 2008/09 examined 639 DNA profile matches for murder, manslaughter and rape crimes.

The results showed that 11 per cent of these matches belonged to individuals who did not have a conviction at the time of the match, but whose DNA was retained on the database. Should these criminals have been left to roam the streets of the UK in the name of civil liberties?

The DNA database can also be used to acquit the innocent. The very first murder conviction using DNA evidence, in 1988, proved the innocence of a suspect, Richard Buckland, who had been accused of the brutal rape and murder of schoolgirl Dawn Ashworth in the Leicestershire village of Enderby.

Increasing the use of DNA profiles and CCTV would actually enhance our freedoms as they would prevent people from committing crimes, catch perpetrators of justice faster, save the lives of thousands of innocent victims and assist the police in these tough economic times.

Philip Davies is the Conservative MP for Shipley.