Birmingham CCTV system leaves police trust in tatters

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They started appearing a few months ago. Ever since then there has been uproar among some Muslims in the city.

At a public meeting this week the crowd started chanting “take them down”.

One man shouted: “You’ve got more cameras than communist China,” before walking out in disgust.

Another man said some young men had told him they would tear them down if the police did not remove them.

They sit at the top of grey posts, about 15m (49ft) high. Some are on busy junctions, others on quiet sidestreets used as rat runs.

Aziz Mitha said: “If they wanted to secure the area they should have brought police into the area, but not cameras. They give a 24/7 view.”

The 19-year-old has a brand new CCTV camera at the end of his road. It does not just watch and record, it can read and record every car number plate that goes by.

He lives in Sparkhill, a mostly Muslim area in Birmingham. It is one of two areas which have been targeted by a CCTV network set up around the streets.

The cameras have damaged community relations between residents and the police, says Mr Ahmed
Some of the cameras are hidden. There are 218 in all, and they can record pictures and number plates of every car that goes in or out of the areas.

When the cameras first appeared – there had been no public consultation – the police said they were for fighting normal crime, like anti-social behaviour and car crime.

But it turned out more than £3m from a special government anti-terror fund had paid for them.

There is no other residential area in the UK with a concentration of cameras like this.

Eighteen-year-old Zakariah Ahmed is looking for work at the moment. He lives in one of the affected areas.

“If there are 70 hidden cameras now, what makes you say that they won’t do it again in six months?” he said.

He thinks it has shattered trust in the police here. By all accounts things had been pretty good over the past few years. But not now.

Zakariah said: “They might even put a camera looking right at your window.”

A public review is under way to decide what to do with the cameras. They are covered and not switched on at the moment.

The police say the camera network can help tackle normal crime. Yet critics point out there are areas of Birmingham with higher levels of crime – and fewer Muslims – that do not have anything like this concentration of CCTV cameras.

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If there was a terrorist incident we’d use every bit of technology possible to solve that crime”
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Sharon Rowe

Assistant Chief Constable

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The police admit mistakes were made. They have apologised. Now they talk about “putting it right”, but there is deep scepticism among some about the true intentions of the police.

The senior officer in charge of the project has admitted that if and when the cameras are turned on, they will have a counter-terrorism role.

Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe told the BBC: “If there was a terrorist incident we’d use every bit of technology possible to solve that crime.”

When asked if the cameras could “prevent” such an incident, she agreed.

Under the new coalition government the tide has turned against CCTV. Tougher regulations are coming. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to end what he has called a “spying culture” in the UK.

In a statement to the BBC, Mr Clegg said the Birmingham cameras were agreed under the previous government.

“This government is serious about protecting civil liberties. In this particular case a public consultation has been announced so that local people can make sure their views are heard.”

The police and MI5 uncovered a major terror plot in Birmingham in 2007. These cameras were supposed to help prevent a repeat of that.

Instead they have left many Muslims in Birmingham angry, distrustful and a lot less likely to talk to the police.

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