If you're poor, they'll keep an eye on you

Kenan Malik watched the police watching the residents of Newcastle's deprived West End
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The Independent Online
A CALL comes in from a mobile patrol: "There's a lad on a wall on the corner of Armstrong Road and Joan Street. Can you keep an eye on him please?" Hayley Wood switches to a camera placed on the top of Adelaide House, scans a group of houses and expertly zooms in. Sure enough, a teenager is sitting idly on a wall. Hayley locks the camera onto him. "Why are you watching him?" I ask. "We often get requests like that," says Hayley. "We keep an eye on them to see if they're up to something. They're the type, you see."

We are sitting in the operations room in West End police station, Newcastle upon Tyne. On Tuesday the world's first police surveillance system in a residential area was officially launched here.

Fifteen cameras - four of which have yet to be installed - survey the West End, one of the most socially deprived areas in Britain. The scheme is controlled from the police station by Hayley and three other civilian operators, who watch the monitors 24 hours a day.

There are three video monitors in the room. Two are split-screen and show images from up to eight cameras. The third monitor allows the operator to view in detail the picture from one camera. The operator can turn any camera through 3600, tilt it up and down and zoom in and out.

"How much detail can it see?" I ask. Hayley immediately zooms in on a car, revealing its number plate. She then pans up a building to look inside a solicitors' office. Switching to another camera, she scans a group of houses, then moves the camera to look through the windows of one of them: "If anything is happening in there, I will know about it."

The cameras were installed as part of a City Challenge project to regenerate the area. "When we introduced cameras into the city centre two years ago," says Superintendent Eric Mock, "the number of reported crimes fell by 6,000. We are hoping for similar figures in the West End." Supt Mock is one of the new breed of policemen: smooth and sophisticated and every inch a PR professional. He talks about the cameras giving "hope" and "reassurance" to the people in the area.

Downstairs, in the operations room, the patter is less polished. "They're all 'scrotes' round here - petty thieves, vandals, druggies," says Dawn Petherick. "There's not much you can do but keep an eye on them." Dawn is a YTS trainee, who normally works in reception but often helps out with the video monitoring.

"I'll show you the kind of people who live here," says Hayley. She switches camera and zooms in. "This is Ladykirk Road. Look at it. The houses are boarded up, yet people still live there. They've got no self-respect."

Upstairs, Eric Mock had been assuring me that the local people are fully behind the scheme. "We've had more than 50 consultative meetings locally and there was only ever one objection - a man who thought it was costing too much."

Downstairs, Dawn shows me a photograph of the camera on Armstrong Road. It looks like something from Northern Ireland. The camera is on top of a 20ft mast, and housed within bullet-proof glass. A vibrating hoop stops anyone putting a ladder up to it. Metal spikes run the length of the mast and it is surrounded by anti-ram bollards which run 15ft into the ground and are designed to withstand the impact of a three-ton van travelling at 60mph. "If it wasn't built like that," says Dawn, "the local kids would tear it down. Even now you have young kids chucking bricks at it every night."

"It's unpleasant," admits Peter Thompson, a Labour councillor and prime mover behind the surveillance scheme. "I wouldn't like to have one of those outside my front door." But then he doesn't. Cllr Thompson lives not in the West End but in a rambling Victorian house in the much sought- after Jesmond area, to the north of the city centre.

He admits, too, that much of the talk about crime in the West End is exaggerated. "People who live there are overwhelmed by a fear of crime, but it is a fear that is not really substantiated by the facts.

"There are far more burglaries in Jesmond than in the West End, as you might expect in a middle-class area."

So why are the cameras in the West End and not in Jesmond? "It's to do with the kind of community you have there," Cllr Thompson says. "You have a problem of loose families. Single mothers, men who drift around. There is a dislocation from normal expectations, from normal manners, if you like, a breakdown of basic rules and social codes. Round here, if kids misbehave, parents will deal with it. In the West End parents often back up, or even encourage, their kids."

How, I ask him, would a police surveillance system help solve problems of family breakdown or the disintegration of traditional social values?

"It's a superficial solution," he admits. "What we need are jobs, housing, social projects. We've started some of these in the area. But I don't think even a Labour government could solve some of our problems. What we are dealing with is people who have been discarded.

"What do you do with working-class men who no longer have any possibility of a job and no means to earn self-respect? They have lost any sense that there are social boundaries. They are too poor, and too poorly educated, to take collective responsibility for their own problems. To some extent, I suppose, the cameras are a form of containment."

It's four o'clock, and Keith Pickering has replaced Hayley Wood in the operations room. "This is the time of day when the fun starts," he says. The Armstrong Road camera picks up a young lad walking up the road. Keith follows him. "He's in our rogues' gallery," he says. "A known, active housebreaker."

When the lad disappears into a nearby house, Keith focuses on another young boy sitting on the railings. "He'll do something in a minute," he says. Is he in the rogues' gallery too? "No," Keith laughs. "But he's the type."

Keith flicks the camera from one group of youngsters to another. Most of them know they are being watched. One gives a V-sign. Keith laughs. "It really winds them up," he says. "They all hate the camera and you can get right up their noses."

Around six, Keith decides he wants to stretch his legs. "Do you want to take over the controls?" he asks me. Suddenly I find myself able to peer through windows, watch anyone walking down the road, "wind them up" if I want to.

It's eight o' clock and getting dark. But the cameras continue working, providing perfect pictures even in pitch darkness. A young PC comes in to ask if anything is happening. "No," says Keith. "It's all quiet. No fun tonight." He sounds rather disappointed.