The crucial role of CCTV in solving Sarah Everard’s disappearance emerged on Saturday along with fresh details about how police caught one of their own.
Detectives leading the search for Everard revealed that analysis of thousands of hours of CCTV footage enabled them to piece together the 33-year-old’s final moments as she walked home in south London – as well as helping identify her murderer.
CCTV from a passing bus on 3 March clinched the breakthrough, capturing Everard standing next to a white car with the hazard lights flashing, a rental vehicle that was traced to police officer Wayne Couzens.
Yet the central role of CCTV in cracking the case arrives against a backdrop of mounting concern that the UK is sleepwalking towards a surveillance state with more cameras than any other European country per capita.
Analysis suggests there could be more than five million surveillance cameras in the UK – one for every 14 people – as the popularity of home CCTV and doorbell cameras increases against a backdrop of what critics say is a lack of regulation governing the technology.
This, they claim, has helped London become one of the most heavily monitored cities in the world, with the average resident said to be caught on CCTV 300 times a day.
Everard was filmed by the doorbell cameras of homeowners on her walk home, while dashcam footage also captured her in the rear seat of Couzens’ hired Vauxhall car shortly after she was abducted.
CCTV from a passing bus on 3 March clinched the breakthrough, capturing Everard standing next to a white car. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA
Couzens’s movements were similarly tracked, with the murderer filmed visiting a Tesco in west London not long before arresting Everard. He was also caught on CCTV in the days that followed in various locations including DIY stores, petrol stations and car parks.
Police data has indicated that CCTV can prevent an average of 16 crimes for every 100. Yet, despite its success in the Everard case, experts have been careful not to overstate the technology’s ability to solve all crimes.
David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, said the technology had obvious limitations but that it was particularly suited to the Everard case.
“CCTV is only going to be useful if you’re dealing with things in the open air,” he said. “And also, of course, if the CCTV is kept for long enough.”
Wilson, who assists UK police forces in murder investigations, particularly serial killers, added: “CCTV is irrelevant for many crimes. But the nature of this case, because it was outside, meant that it came into its own.”
He said that other technological solutions like mobile phone records and social media tended to be more often effective in solving homicides.
Phone cell site analysis, in fact, placed Everard at a precise point on the South Circular just before 9.30pm on the night she went missing. Because detectives could find no sighting of her on CCTV after that point, it was evident they had pinpointed the place where she went missing.
Not everybody is convinced of CCTV’s effectiveness for crime prevention. Although the UK government invested large sums in the technology during the 1990s, recently a number of councils have cut their camera usage due to funding shortages.
Critics continue to raise concerns over the number of CCTV cameras in the UK and the lack of regulation regarding their use.
The government’s surveillance minister has previously warned that surveillance technology – including body-worn video and number plate recognition systems – run the risk of changing communities by reducing people to trackable numbers in a database.