More cameras on streets as violence rises

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Violent crime in London has risen by one-third in the past year and sex attacks have increased by a quarter, it was revealed today.

Robberies and street crime also rose despite an expensive and intensive anti-mugging campaign by Scotland Yard.

The alarming upward trends were announced as the Metropolitan Police disclosed that it plans to introduce a surveillance camera system that can automatically check car number plates in four seconds.

The initiative is primarily aimed at countering terrorists but can be used against all motorists - provoking fears of "big brother" style policing in the capital.

But Scotland Yard will be deeply worried at the sharp rise in violent and sexual offences. Its annual report, published today, shows the number of reported offences of violence in the Metropolitan area went up to 53,700 for the year to March, from 40,200 for the same period the previous 12 months.

Sexual offences rose by 26.3 per cent from 6,102 to 7,708 over the same period. This included a large jump in rapes, which increased by 347 to 1,740.

Crimes involving drug dealing rose by a quarter to 11,560.

Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said some of the extra crimes of violence were due to new recording methods. He predicted that the increases would level off in the coming year. But the scale of rise is very surprising: it is three times the national trend.

The annual report discloses that the anti-crime campaign Operation Eagle Eye, launched in 1995, has resulted in street robbers moving on to new offences and displaced them into areas that are less well policed.

Sir Paul also conceded that offences were still increasing, but the rate had slowed. The number of muggings rose by about 1,500 to 28,400.

Sir Paul said: "There is evidence that robbers are prepared to travel across London to avoid detection. Street robbers have also been involved in `steaming' offences in premises such as building societies, where a group of street robbers use their collective presence to engender a fear of violence in victims before stealing from them."

The overall crime figures rose by 2.3 per cent, largely thanks to a 5 per cent cut in burglaries.

In a new initiative Scotland Yard intends to introduce a system called Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to monitor vehicles in London. The system uses a fixed surveillance camera to "read" the number plate of a vehicle, either stationary or moving, and to check the details on the police national computer. If the vehicle is wanted by the police it will automatically bleep or give a message on the screen.

The whole process takes about four seconds. The camera also takes photographs of the driver and any passengers in the vehicle.

It is already being used to check vehicles entering the City of London's so-called "ring-of-steel" security zone, where up to 120,000 vehicles are checked each day.