The role of an open-space CCTV system in limiting alcohol-related assault injuries in a late-night entertainment precinct in a tropical Queensland city, Australia
- James Cook University, School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Science, Queensland, Australia
- Correspondence to Shane Pointing, James Cook University, School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Science, PO Box 6811, Cairns, Queensland 4870, Australia;
- Accepted 8 August 2011
- Published Online First 5 September 2011
Closed circuit television (CCTV) systems which incorporate real-time communication links between camera room operators and on-the-ground security may limit injuries resulting from alcohol-related assault. This pilot study examined CCTV footage and operator records of security responses for two periods totalling 22 days in 2010–2011 when 30 alcohol-related assaults were recorded. Semistructured discussions were conducted with camera room operators during 18 h of observation. Camera operators were proactive, efficiently directing street security to assault incidents. The system intervened in 40% (n=12) of alcohol-related assaults, limiting possible injury. This included three incidents judged as potentially preventable. A further five (17%) assault incidents were also judged as potentially preventable, while 43% (n=13) happened too quickly for intervention. Case studies describe security intervention in each category. Further research is recommended, particularly to evaluate the effects on preventing injuries through targeted awareness training to improve responsiveness and enhance the preventative capacity of similar CCTV systems.
Preventing injuries due to alcohol-related violence in inner-city entertainment precincts is an ongoing public health issue.1–3 The use of closed circuit television (CCTV) by local authorities to monitor open space in late-night entertainment precincts (LNEPs) has become widespread.4 5 Most CCTV systems in Australia and the UK have the reduction of alcohol-related violence and disorder as a goal,6–8 but evaluations of the effectiveness of these systems in reducing injuries are hard to find.4–6 8–10 Operational practices in open-space CCTV camera rooms have been identified as critical for promptly detecting antisocial behaviour and violence8 9 11 and are a growing area of research.11–13 Evidence suggests that violence in LNEPs is a staged process14 and that observers of CCTV footage can differentiate between behavioural sequences ending in violence and matched sequences which do not.15 Real-time communication between the monitoring room and on-the-ground security has been found to facilitate rapid deployment of security to the site of an assault,6 8 offering considerable potential to limit physical harm.8 Importantly, there is evidence that city trauma services experience decreased assault presentations when these processes are in place.16
A pilot study examined CCTV camera operators' reports and observed camera room and street security operations in a regional city LNEP in tropical Australia. Direct effects of the CCTV system in reducing the impacts of violent incidents in the LNEP were observed. Selected case studies illustrate processes involved. The potential for further reductions and recommended strategies to achieve this are discussed.
Cairns is a coastal, regional centre in far north Queensland (Australia), with a resident population of 165 000.17 It is an international and domestic tourist destination, hosting over 550 000 visitor nights in 2010, including a significant backpacker component.18 Cairns Regional Council achieved International Safe Communities accreditation in 2009 and implements ongoing programmes of injury prevention in accordance with International Safe Communities protocols.19
Cairns CCTV technology comprises 81 late-generation digital cameras linked to computer infrastructure in a camera room. The city's LNEP is monitored 24 h a day and is an area of approximately 0.8 square kilometres. It includes several recognised violence ‘hot spots’, 26 premises licensed to sell liquor after midnight and 3 bus and taxi transport hubs. The CCTV camera room is staffed continuously for 192 h per week by at least one operator. A second operator is rostered on during three 8 h shifts on weekend evenings. Operators have constant radio contact with street and venue security. Up to eight street security officers patrol on weekend nights. CCTV observation of an incident can be initiated by the camera operators, or by requests from police or security via phone or radio contact.
Data sources and analysis
Security incident management system (SIMS)
Camera operators categorise and log incidents of concern in the SIMS database. Each entry is automatically linked with segments of camera footage. The system offers operators 41 ‘Incident Types’ including the category of ‘alcohol-related assault’. For 9 days in late August (2010) and 13 days over Christmas/New Year (2010–2011), the footage and associated SIMS reports of all incidents logged by camera operators were viewed by authors ESP and CH-J. Both observers independently recorded observations of each incident. Each incident of alcohol-related assault was subsequently categorised by consensus as:
A. an assault which happened too quickly for the camera operators to direct street security to intervene;
B. an assault where camera operators directed street security to intervene while the assault was occurring;
C. an assault incident where the sequence of events allowed time for the camera operators to direct street security to intervene before violence occurred.
Three case studies which best illustrated these incidents were selected by the observers.
Camera room observations
Footage was viewed during a total of 18 h in the camera room, with camera operators retrieving the footage and SIMS reports for viewing while fulfilling their observational and other duties. During this time, BP and CH-J observed camera operators' actions and recorded open-ended discussions with them.
Ethics approval for the study was provided by James Cook University Human Research Ethics Committee. The researchers adhered to Cairns Regional Council's privacy provisions.
Summary of camera room observations
Peak incident periods demanded quick, efficient multi-tasking by camera operators, combined with acute situational awareness and high-level observation skills. Case Study 1 is an example of such skills. Camera operators all reported they were trained ‘on the job’, and relied on personal experience and intuition. The categorisation of incidents, including ‘alcohol-related assault’, is applied by each operator according to his or her own interpretation, with no protocols in place to guide the decision. The decision to observe an incident was initiated by camera operators in 53% of the incidents, with 47% of observations initiated by requests from police, venue security and other external agencies. The outcome of external agencies attendance at an incident was not consistently recorded.
A total of 169 incidents were logged on SIMS for the 22 days. Camera operators logged 30 incidents of ‘alcohol-related assault’. Other significant proportions of logged Incident Types included ‘homelessness’ (34%), ‘general disturbance’ (8%) and ‘youth’ safety issues (6%).
Eighteen of the 30 alcohol-related assaults (60%) occurred at night between midnight Friday and 6am Sunday, with a further 4 (13%) occurring during daylight over the same period. Almost all assaults (93%) were by males on males. Six of the incidents (20%) escalated to involve three or more males prior to the arrival of security. The alcohol-related assault incidents were categorised as follows:
There were 13 (43%) ‘alcohol-related assault’ incidents recorded which happened too quickly for camera operators to direct street security to intervene. These incidents ended quickly with no time for any direct action to be taken by security. Case Study 1 illustrates Category A and highlights the potential for a skilled operator, knowledgeable about the local context, to initiate actions based on minimal environmental cues.
In 12 incidents (40%), camera operators alerted street security who then intervened to curtail the violence or prevent its escalation (eg, Case Study 2). In three of these incidents, there was potential to direct street security to the scene prior to the assault occurring in order to prevent it from occurring. In Case Study 2, the assault occurred out of the range of view of street security and would probably have continued without the arrival of street security, who were alerted by the camera operators. Security arrived within 2 min of being alerted by camera operators. Approximately 5 min elapsed between the initial identification of the situation in the camera room and the arrival of street security.
In a further five incidents (17%), there was potential to intervene to prevent the initiation of violence. Combined with the three similar incidents in Category B, which were judged as preventable and where street security intervened after violence was initiated, 27% of assault incidents could have been prevented through improved surveillance and response. In Case Study 3, although street security were not alerted by the camera operators, they arrived <1 min after the assault occurred, indicating that prevention is possible.
In 22 days, 30 alcohol-related assaults were logged by the CCTV system in the Cairns LNEP. Injury consequences for the victims were limited by system intervention in 40% of these incidents. Over the same period, intervention by security could have prevented 27% of all assaults. Extrapolation from this pilot study sample suggests that if assault rates and system intervention were consistent across 2010, there may have been approximately 500 alcohol-related assaults, with injury consequences contained in 40%, or approximately 200 of these incidents. Around 27% or 130 assaults could potentially have been prevented. Although 43% or around 215 assaults may have happened too quickly for intervention, the CCTV system clearly makes a significant contribution to limiting the consequences of alcohol-related assault in the LNEP.
Research suggests that most assaults in LNEPs involve a four-stage process: victim selection, baiting, violence and aftermath.14 Case Studies 2 and 3 exemplify the potential for camera operators to detect an imminent assault and also illustrate the progression of each incident through the first three stages. The victim selection and baiting stages took a total of approximately 3–4 min. There is substantial evidence that violence in alcohol-fuelled LNEPs can end in severe injury or death, 1–3 a fact highlighted in an ongoing campaign by police in Australia.20 The arrival of security on the scene during the victim selection or baiting stages may prevent initiation of any violence, including melees.
The ‘on-the-job’ training for CCTV operators in Cairns is concerning but consistent with reports in other studies.8 10 12 13 Training to enhance camera operators' awareness of critical behavioural cues during the victim selection and baiting stages may enhance responsiveness and, using a continuous quality improvement approach, reduce the time taken for security to arrive at the assault location. This may provide significant, cost-effective public health benefits where similar open-space CCTV systems are in place.
Case studies demonstrating the role and potential of CCTV in limiting assault injuries
Case study 1
At approximately 19:15 on Thursday night during an observational session, a camera zoomed in on a small gathering of people who were partly obscured by a traffic sign. The lighting was poor, but the scene was in the vicinity of an alcohol-related violence hot spot owing to it being a pedestrian thoroughfare. The camera observed the beginning of a scuffle in which a person was knocked to the ground. Street security were nearby and arrived before the camera room could alert them by radio. When asked why the camera had zoomed in on the obscure, poorly lit area where nothing was happening, the operator replied that he had seen a flash of movement.
Case study 2
At 4:15 on Saturday morning during routine scans of identified violence hot spots, camera operators noticed two bare-chested men (Perpetrators 1 and 2) talking with a third man (Victim). The two perpetrators had adopted an aggressive posture and were gesticulating. The two perpetrators walked away and then returned, continuing to more shout and gesticulate. This period took approximately 3 min. Perpetrator 1 then ran the Victim and took a flying kick at him. Perpetrator 2 also ran the Victim. The camera operator alerted street security via radio. There was an exchange of glancing blows between the Victim and Perpetrators 1 and 2, and then Perpetrator 2 and the Victim fell to the ground at the roadside and wrestled. At this point, three street security officers and two venue security staff (from a venue 300 m away) arrived and separated the scuffling men. The arrival of street and venue security took <2 min from the first kick. Security restrained Perpetrator 1 on the ground and verbally detained Perpetrator 2 with minimal physical contact until police arrived <5 min later. The Victim waited a number of metres away during this time and then spoke with police. The footage ended.
This hot spot is 200 m from the general gathering point for contracted street security. It is unknown whether street security were at the gathering point or attending another incident in the area. The street corner where the scuffling men fell lies on a main traffic route through the LNEP. Discussion of the incident with the camera operators revealed their opinion that anything could have happened had security not intervened. Operators suggested examples such as the men falling on the cement kerbing and striking their head, those involved being hit by a passing car or continued kicking that may have resulted in serious injury.
Case Study 3
At 02:45 on Sunday morning, a female and male couple were waiting at the counter in an open-front, late-night takeaway food shop. Another male left a group of three other men and approached the couple. They exchanged words, and the male from the group appeared to become more aggressive in his posture and verbal behaviour for approximately 90 s. The male and female couple disengaged and turned back to the counter while the male from the group continued to confront them. Approximately 3 min later, the male from the group punched the male from the couple in the face. Street security arrived <1 min later and calmed the situation. It appeared neither of the couple wished to involve police or other agencies. The group of males left the scene.
Proximity of the incident to the main gathering point for security (80 m) and from the nearest licensed late-night venue (200 m) suggests opportunities for possible intervention during the 4 min period prior to the punch being thrown, in which the situation was obviously escalating.
What is already known on this subject
Open-space closed circuit television (CCTV) systems are extensively used in the UK, Europe and Australia to monitor late-night entertainment precincts.
These systems often include continuous human monitoring and real-time communications with police and security on the ground.
Observers of CCTV footage can differentiate between behavioural sequences ending in violence and matched sequences which do not.
What this study adds
Evidence that an open-space CCTV system has directly limited injuries resulting from alcohol-related assaults in a late-night entertainment precinct.
Pilot findings that one in six assaults viewed by camera operators may be prevented with appropriate resourcing.
A research methodology to prevent assault injuries in licensed environments and an enhanced evaluation framework for open-space CCTV systems.
Rene ter Bogt and Malcolm Robertson, Cairns Regional Council, and all the camera operators.
Funding Cairns Regional Council.
Competing interests None.
Ethics approval James Cook University Human Research Ethics Committee.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement The data was obtained from Cairns Regional Councils CCTV system database.