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Identifying criminals: Justice seen to be done

Identifying those who took part in the recent riots in London and other English cities may prove easier than in past disorders, but the recent widespread introduction of surveillance technology brings its own problems, argues Edward Higgs.

Security camera at London (Heathrow) Airport. Photo / Adrian PingstoneIn August 2011, after four nights of rioting, the English public awoke to newspapers full of photographs of looters with headlines inviting them to ‘Shop a Moron’. Many citizens did so, although some grainy images released by the police from closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) were of poor quality and many rioters took the sensible precaution of wearing scarves round their faces. In London some looters even sacked a fancy dress store to acquire masks to hide their identities.

‘Riotous assemblies’ are, of course, nothing new in England, nor are problems of identification in such circumstances, although riots in the past often had aims other than simple looting. In 1723 Parliament passed the Criminal Law (or Black) Act, which mandated the death penalty for those who had recently

in great numbers, armed with swords, firearms, and other offensive weapons, several of them with their faces blacked, or in disguised habits, unlawfully hunted in the forests belonging to his Majesty, and in the parks of divers of his Majesty’s subjects …

The ‘Waltham Blacks’, as they were known, were opposed to the corrupt administration of the forests by Sir Robert Walpole and his Whig cronies.

In early Victorian South Wales crowds of men, some with blackened faces and others dressed as women, smashed toll gates with sledge-hammers in protest at high road taxes. The leader of the rioters was addressed as ‘Becca’ – hence the Rebecca Riots. In June 1843 300 protesters on horseback and 2,000 on foot marched through Carmarthen, led by a man in women’s clothing with long ringlets of horsehair. Authority could be mocked by such disguise at the same time as the rioters’ identities were obscured.

Identification at riots was traditionally a matter of prisoners in the dock being picked out by constables or witnesses. But more formal means of identification were developed and not only to identify rioters. One of the first recorded instances of an identity parade was in the case of the public protests at Queen Caroline’s funeral procession in August 1821. The queen, the estranged wife of George IV, was an icon of radical discontent and the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, ordered the army to remove her body to her native Brunswick as quickly as possible to prevent protests. Soldiers opened fire when demonstrators erected barricades in London’s Oxford Street and killed two men. The whole of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards was paraded and examined by witnesses under the supervision of the Bow Street magistrates, who picked out individual soldiers. But the identifications did not lead to prosecutions because the soldiers denied involvement to the inquest jury, which eventually returned a verdict of ‘murder by an officer to the jury unknown’. Identity parades and dock identifications have subsequently proved unreliable, leading the Devlin Committee on Evidence of Identification in Criminal Cases, set up in the late 1970s, to recommend that they should only be used if corroborated by other evidence.

The expansion of CCTV and the development of face-recognition software has held out the promise of a solution to these problems. CCTV began to be installed in shops in Britain in the early 1960s and spread to the London Underground and traffic hot spots in the 1970s. It was only in 1985, however, that the permanent surveillance of a public space became a reality with the installation of a CCTV system covering that focus of ‘copycat criminality’, the seaside promenade at Bournemouth. But governments, both Conservative and Labour, came to see CCTV as a means of preventing rising crime. The deployment of privately-produced technology at a time when the police were withdrawing from the streets to become crime ‘firefighters’ in cars (‘tinned police’) had many attractions and between 1992 and 2002 £250 million of public money was spent on CCTV. The British became the most extensively watched population in the world.

Meanwhile the first work on automatic facial recognition was undertaken by Woodrow Bledsoe at the Panoramic Research Institute in Palo Alto, California  in the early 1960s and Takeo Kanade demonstrated a rudimentary facial matching system in the Japanese pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Exposition. The British Home Office and the retailer Marks and Spencer each funded research to produce techniques for the reliable automatic visual recognition of suspects whose pictures were held in databases. Limited systems are already in operation, such as the ‘Football Intelligence System’ in Greater Manchester, used to locate offenders associated with football violence.

CCTV has certainly helped to identify thousands of looters in the recent riots but may also have created that vacuum of policing in the public space that allowed the disturbances to explode so dramatically in the first place.

Edward Higgs is Professor of History at the University of Essex and the author of Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present (Continuum, 2011).

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