On Tuesday Wrexham.com visited the town’s CCTV operations centre in an undisclosed location where all the local video feeds are wirelessly beamed to be monitored…
Visiting Wrexham Council’s CCTV control room is like being in a North Korean hotel documentary, the room is hidden behind a secure labyrinth of huge empty corridors where the lights have long stopped working, buried in a non-descript commercial unit on the town’s industrial estate.
Once inside the bright air conditioned hi-tech control room itself the oppressive feel vanishes, with chirpy operators zipping around keyboards, and fiddling with joysticks picking out views – checking a lady is safely using a cash point in Caia, then a split second later keeping an eye on Regent Street.
One screen shows an almost zoomed aerial view of a wooden bench in the middle of Wrexham, a man opens a large suspicious-looking black cellophane wrap containing what appears to be ‘Spice’.
Little does he know that four miles away, two pairs of eyes are watching his every move ready to report him to police officers on the ground.
A bank of 10 televisions on a wall in front of them displays 60 of the 87 cameras available, while their three computer monitors allow them to select and track footage more closely.
The control room is manned 24/7 and uses the latest technology following an investment of just under £500,000 made by Wrexham Council in 2015.
Gone are the days of grainy footage and large grey cameras on poles, which have now been replaced by crystal clear images and sleak black devices which are barely noticeable as you walk by.
Sat in a comfortable computer chair, Mike (not his real name) has been part of the team since CCTV was first introduced in Wrexham in 1996. In its first year of operation there was a 52 per cent reduction in crime within the town centre and the system has since been credited as assisting with more than 30,000 arrests.
Mike explains how CCTV has helped to make the town a safer place during the last 22 years.
He said: “When we first started it was quite bad. One thing we found a lot of were convictions for assault because before people would have a punch-up in town and go their separate ways and no-one would know about it.
“But because it was being viewed, people were now being arrested for it. That then dropped when people realised they weren’t going to get away with it.
“When they (police) wanted footage of an incident they used to have to sign out three tapes, now your incident is just downloaded and burned onto a disc and it’s ready to go.”
What is most notable is the distance that some of the cameras are able to zoom, and the quality.
One camera in a park in the village of Ponciau can focus in on Erddig Hall just under four miles away, while another outside Wrexham General train station can see as far as Tomlinson’s Dairies up in the hills of Minera.
Different periods of the day dictate what type of incident the operators will be looking out for, keeping in contact with staff from more than 100 shops in the daytime to track shoplifters and checking in with bars and nightclubs to help the town’s night time economy.
The team also receives up to three missing persons reports a day, often relating to patients who have gone missing from Wrexham Maelor Hospital.
Footage of all of these incidents can be relayed live to the North Wales Police control room in St Asaph, as well as officers on foot via their mobile phones.
Being born and bred in the town himself, Mike says local knowledge is a key element to successfully monitoring the screens, “After years and years of being here, you can look at a camera and say where it is without it being labelled up and a lot of it is down to local knowledge.
“It’s knowing where the people you’re looking for are going to be spending their days.
“We know who’s liable to be doing what. You’ve got your alcoholics and substance abusers, you know where they’re going to be and who they’re going to be hanging around with.
“There’s the kids who go missing from the care homes, there’s the missing people from the hospital. It’s used quite a lot for that.
“We do find them because they’ll hang around town, and it’s just to carry out welfare checks on them.”
One issue which has drawn attention to Wrexham in recent years is the use of new psychoactive substances such as Spice – In response, Wrexham Council joined forces with North Wales Police, health and housing agencies, homelessness and drugs charities to set up a taskforce to tackle the issue.
However, Mike insists that the perception of crime in the area doesn’t always match up to the reality.
He said: “People imagine that there’s a big problem with it (Spice) in Wrexham when there isn’t. You’ve got a small core of people who are responsible.
“You get people stealing from pound shops just to buy a bit of spice or mamba, but it’s not that prevalent shoplifting, a lot of it’s opportunism.
“In town we’ve seen really busy nights where you’ve got about 3,000 people on Brook Street at 3am. Considering the amount of people out there’s very little trouble.”
While some civil liberties groups might compare CCTV surveillance in the UK to a ‘Big Brother’ state, it can also have its positive uses.
Mike highlights one occasion where the system was used to find a child’s lost teddy bear.
During their downtime, the CCTV operators also see some unusual sights which are worthy of appearing on ITV’s You’ve Been Framed. Mike said: “One that sticks out is there was a lad not long after the system was put in, he was in Hope Street and he was being really abusive towards the camera.
“He was walking along and gesturing to the camera all the time and walked straight into a pole. His mates who were with him were all laughing, they thought it was hilarious.”
However, just as we prepare to leave, his colleague manages to go one better.
“A couple of weeks ago we were just monitoring Brook Street and happened to see a chap getting a taxi home with a seagull,” he said. “Incredibly the taxi driver actually took him home or wherever he was going.”
We might be living in a time of shrinking local authority budgets, but speaking afterwards Wrexham Council’s deputy leader Hugh Jones insists it has no plans to reduce its CCTV capacity.
Councils in Wales have been warned that they will need to start working closer together in future and Cllr Jones explained that Wrexham was looking to host CCTV on behalf of other north Wales authorities in a possible revenue raiser for Wrexham Council.
He said: “We have the most modern and effective CCTV system in the whole of north Wales, so our ambition is to encourage others to come into partnership with us.
“We can host CCTV for them using the expertise and the knowledge and the investment we’ve got here in Wrexham.
Cllr Jones said having a system fit for the 21st century which is compatible with police and the courts is crucial to improving community safety- you can view the full interview answers below…
Liam Randall – BBC Local Democracy Reporter (more here on the LDR scheme) / Wrexham.com
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