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The CCTV that helps keep our city safe; Cameras could work even better.

COVENTRY city centre boasts one of the most advanced surveillance systems anywhere in the country. PAUL DALE and ALISON McCONKEY report on the sophisticated hi-tech assault on crime.

TWO men sit hunched over a bank of 12 television screens in a darkened room somewhere in the centre of Coventry.

They run mission control at the nerve centre of one of the most impressive CCTV security systems anywhere in Britain.

From here it is possible to see what is happening almost anywhere in the central area at any time of the day or night. One-hundred-and-seven cameras strategically placed high on buildings relay a picture of life on the streets and car parks 24-hours a day.

Every single image is recorded and securely stored away in the event of police needing evidence to help with a prosecution.

The exact whereabouts of the communications centre cannot be revealed. Police chiefs believe that the sophisticated equipment would be a prime target in the event of a terrorist attack.

The technology is incredible. At a flick of the switch monitoring room staff can close in on a target, with focus sharp enough to read the label on a pair of trousers.

Pan back and the cameras can pick up traffic problems on the M6 at Exhall. It's even possible to see Nuneaton's Mount Judd in the distance.

The City Centre Company invested pounds 100,000 on the new monitoring HQ shortly before Christmas and there are plans to keep upgrading the equipment over the next few years.

The benefits of such a high-powered system in the fight against crime are obvious. Anyone committing an offence in the city centre is almost certain to be recorded on film. In the shopping Precinct, there really is no hiding place for criminals.

A live video link between the City Centre Company camera operators and Little Park Street enables the city's main police station to monitor events as they unfold.

Superintendent Neil Goosey, of Coventry police, described the system as a brilliant achievement which has led to a fall in city centre crime. ''It means that security staff can phone through and say, will you have a look at someone on camera 37 who is behaving suspiciously.

''We can actually witness a crime happening and get around there straight away.

''All through the night there is recording going on. A serious sexual assault was captured on film recently and that made it possible for us to arrest a man''.

The system allows monitoring staff to follow incidents in what computer experts call 'real time'. Shoplifting suspects, for example, can be tracked in live action across the precinct shopping area.

Coventry was the first city in the country to introduce CCTV cameras on such a large scale.

The latest advance is a pioneering retail radio to be used link in tandem with the CCTVs, as part of a crackdown on retail crime.

Roger Bache, in charge of the city centre security staff, said: ''The strength of the scheme is putting everything together. The cameras, radios and retail crime initiative.

''It's all about making the city centre safer so we attract more people in. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the country.''

The new radio link was introduced earlier this year. The city centre has been split into six zones, with businesses automatically alerted to any incident in their own patch.

The new radios are fitted with a panic button which silently alerts the control room operators should emergency assistance be required.

CRIME watchdogs have expressed concerns about the difficulties of monitoring Coventry's CCTV cameras at night.

Members of the police consultative committee fear that the expensive security system is not achieving its full potential.

City Centre Company staff, who are responsible for monitoring the film, do not work after 10.30pm. When they go home, the cameras continue to run but the communications nerve centre closes until 8am.

Police officers at Little Park Street can still look at live video coverage of the city centre on a special link-up, but do not have automatic access to the huge bank of television screens in the communications centre.

Police chiefs admit this makes it more difficult for them to follow what is happening on the streets. There are also problems in finding sufficient police manpower to look at the video film on a continual basis.

City Centre Company chief executive Liz Millett plans to introduce 24- hour monitoring, but new staffing arrangements could cost pounds 100,000.

She said: ''At the moment the cameras are monitored by car park attendants and city centre assistants. We would like to introduce dedicated control room staff.

''We can't do it overnight because we need to consult with the unions. But it is in our business plan and we intend to do it as soon as possible. I would hope to achieve it by June.''

Until recently, police officers were able to monitor the cameras after 10.30pm. But when the City Centre Company moved its communications system to a new HQ in December, the practice ceased for security reasons.

Ms Millett added: ''It's a very heavily alarmed building because we have the urban traffic control centre behind us. Because of the alarm system, you can't just let people in and out on an ad-hoc basis.

''But on any occasion when the police want to come in we can make special arrangements for them.''

Superintendent Neil Goosey of Coventry police confirmed that access to the cameras had been hit since Christmas.

He added: ''For CCTV to be valuable you need someone to monitor them. If you don't, you can't realise their full potential. The City Centre Company know this and we know it.

''We made representations as the move was going on. We are concerned about our loss and they appreciate that.

''However, if we have a specific operation where we want access to the full range of cameras the City Centre Company have always offered it to us.''

Supt Goosey said he did not believe a long-term solution should involve police officers monitoring the cameras. ''It's not the answer. We should not be having expensive and highly-trained officers monitoring the cameras when they should be out on the streets.''
COPYRIGHT 1999 Coventry Newpapers
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Dale, Paul; McConkey, Alison
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Apr 6, 1999
Words:1036
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