Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.
Friday night/Saturday morning, 3am, and I’m watching two bros scale a head-height, spiky iron fence. Even without being able to hear anything, I can tell they’re chaotically drunk. This isn’t going to end well.
Sure enough, one pivots over the top and sprawls upside down, trousers caught on a spike, feet pointing skywards, face squished back through the railings. His mate stands, buckling and weaving, incapable of standing, far less helping.
Now here’s a naked guy in the middle of a busy junction, breakdancing, chasing cyclists and directing traffic. Retrieving an umbrella – where was he hiding that? – he starts performing a choreographed routine as a police van approaches. He scarpers, all five appendages swinging. The brolly isn’t the only thing that’s pale and blue.
Another busy city street: a lone young woman staggers down the pavement dressed as Pocahontas. She repeatedly lifts a tiny flap of a skirt, cocks her leg and flashes passers-by. It doesn’t take long for a beardy in a beanie to take an interest. This might not end well, either.
These are what we might call Hackney CCTV’s greatest hits: incidents recorded by the London borough’s council-operated cameras, archived footage of late-night revellers in trouble and/or jeopardy. After I’ve spent a long Friday night shift with the operators in their secure bunker, listening to police radio transmissions and scrutinising 144 screens feeding in silent images of east London nightlife in all its glory, these short clips offer, if not light relief, then a sobering wake-up call.
The footage stored on the supervisor’s computer is grouped in folders bearing tell-it-like-it-is titles: Firearms, Intoxication, Mental Health Issues, Pickpocketing, Public Disorder, Public Sex.
The actual clips also go by blandly descriptive loglines. “Ejected from shop female falls” – brutal scenes of an intoxicated woman careering out of a doorway and clattering hard into the gutter. “Medical collapse of lone male” – a weaving man suddenly falling face-first into the road, arms stiff by his sides. “Firearms drive-by shooting of two pedestrians” – just horrifying. “Firearms seen 4 arrested” – at least that one has something like a happy ending.
I wonder if that bro is still stuck on those railings.
It’s kicking-off time in the heart of London’s biggest night-time economy – one that, according to the most recent figures, employs almost 5,000 people in some 1,400 businesses and generates an annual turnover of about £111 million. This is Hackney on a Friday night: rammed, buzzing, exciting, edgy.
The borough, in the north-east of the city, comprises various residential neighbourhoods but also the capital’s most popular going-out zones: Shoreditch, Hoxton, Haggerston, Kingsland, Dalston, Hackney Wick. Forget the grown-up, tourist-friendly environs of Soho and the West End; the leafy, moneyed streets of Notting Hill in the west; or the trendy upstarts of Peckham and Brockley south of the River Thames. For late licences and the best pubs, clubs, venues, cafés, restaurants and takeaways, Hackney is still where it’s at.
But with great fun come great challenges. Hackney contends with an active gang problem, lots of drug dealing and usage, late-night drunkenness, public disorder, sexual assault, and the constant static of teenagers and young people harassing and being harassed, mugging and being mugged – for headphones, phones, bikes, even the trainers on their feet and the Stone Island sweatshirts on their backs.
The Hackney Civil Protection Service watches out for all of this.
In ethos terms, it’s a council-run body that works with the police and other emergency services to protect inhabitants, visitors, business owners and property in a densely inhabited borough of just 6.8 square miles with a population of 280,000 that swells massively at the weekend. The staff wear black jumpers and jackets that identify them as members of the Public Space Surveillance Team.
CCTV stands for closed-circuit television. But as the BBC’s recent man-on-the-run thriller series The Capture posited, it also stands for “caring for the community through vigilance”. Which sounds Orwellian until you’ve stood in a bunker watching the police, guided by camera operators, track and apprehend a gang of armed robbers, or heard how the vigilance of a lone operator prevented a young girl from being bundled into a car by two strangers.
In practical terms, it’s a secure, hi-tech basement behind Stoke Newington Town Hall in the northern end of the borough. Entry is via the eerie, largely deserted west wing of the building. It used to house the offices of the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington. But since the absorption of “Stokey” into Hackney in 1965, the upper floors have been mothballed, with the beautiful art deco staircases, parquet flooring and polished wooden noticeboards offering a time-capsule beloved of TV and film crews.
Passing along unlit corridors, we go deeper, downwards, further back: the Second World War Civil Defence bunker was located here, which is one of the reasons the exterior of the building still bears the traces of the camouflage paint applied in an attempt to obscure it from Luftwaffe bombers. There are reinforced steel beams, a still-visible structure within a structure, to make it bomb-proof.
Through another heavy door we enter the Borough Emergency Control Centre. A whiteboard is marked out with the current threat level: “Severe: an attack is highly likely”. Andy Wells, the service manager who’s my host for the evening, says it’s been at that level “for years”. The only time he’s seen it reach a higher level (“Critical: an attack is expected imminently”) was after the terrorist attack at Ariana Grande’s Manchester Arena concert in May 2017, and after the Parsons Green tube bombing in September 2017. In the immediate aftermath of those incidents the locations of the perpetrators were unknown. The threat level didn’t rise after the London Bridge attacks of the same year “because we knew all the attackers were dead”.
“The UK has been doing this since before World War Two,” says Wells. “We are world leaders in civil protection.” The sobering corollary of which is that outside of China, London is the most surveilled city in the world, with more CCTV cameras per person than any other non-Chinese city. Smile! You’re probably on camera.
Finally, we reach a bunker within the bunker. Inside, small teams of two or three operators, working around the clock, seven days a week, scan images from thousands of CCTV cameras covering streets, squares, alleys and buildings.
The operators are in unbroken contact with the emergency services, passing on information – a mugging here, a fire there, a road accident on Mare Street or Old Street or Kingsland High Street.
Or they’re responding to police requests to pan, tilt and zoom a specific camera overlooking a known drug-dealing hotspot, or to track the movements of suspected gang members, or to follow a car that’s been flagged on the ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition) system.
They can’t, and don’t, see everything, and are legally prevented from peering into private homes. All footage is recorded over after 28 days. But they cover, and spot, and prevent, and record, an awful lot. If you’ve been out in Shoreditch of an evening, chances are you’ll have been caught on camera at some point.
How many cameras are there in Hackney? “Who knows?” is Wells’ first response. But, pressed, this long-term Hackney Council employee (and former copper) comes up with a figure of “360-plus that are controlled from here”. Then there are 1,600 on housing estates which his operators can patch into, along with 42 Transport for London (TfL) cameras. Anti-social behaviour knows no boundaries, though, so they have an agreement with neighbouring Tower Hamlets and Islington, giving access to “hundreds” more along the borough borders. There are also some 400 cameras on corporate buildings which they can access, some fixed on fire escapes, some with pan-tilt-zoom capability, which can scan the streets.
Laura (not her real name) has been doing this job for 11 years, Pete (ditto) for just over one, and both love it. For the duration of their 12-hour shift (7pm-7am) they sit at shallow desks overlooked by a large video wall tiled with dozens of screens, their hands constantly working keyboards and joysticks to access individual cameras.
When I ask what they’re looking out for, they reply: body language – people stiffening, recoiling, all looking in one direction. Also: specific areas, specific people, sudden gatherings, groups, loiterers and the generally shifty. But, also, ultimately, they’re constantly just looking, looking, looking, eyes flicking over the dozens of busy screens in a way that makes my brain reel after only a couple of hours.
Pete tells me that, even after only a year, he recognises regulars, dealers and users mainly. To help the operators’ mental geography, they give some nicknames.
“Fingers – I’m not sure why we call her that. She’s a drug addict and runs around Hackney Central. There’s a lady called Benidorm who goes around in a wheelchair in [location redacted]. There’s somebody called Stinky Boot. I don’t know what that was about. Maybe she sniffed her boot or something at one point.”
There is, clearly, an element of detachment that comes from scanning people, faces and places, hour after hour, night after night, week in and week out. But the operators also exhibit a duty of care. Laura tells me about “a young female who’s been a drug addict since before I came here. She was pregnant, went into hospital, gave birth, then went missing from the hospital – but we found her on camera. Yeah, I’ve seen her really, really decline over the years,” she says quietly. “We tried to get help for her, but it is really difficult to watch.”
Equally, there are those who are both camera-ready and camera-shy. “Very often” Pete will catch someone giving him the finger directly into the camera lens. “The drug dealers, especially in [location redacted], they know pretty well what we can and can’t see. I don’t know how, to be honest. But you get a few people, when they’re up to no good, they just can’t help themselves from glancing up at the camera every now and then.”
What’s the worst thing Laura’s seen in her 11 years? Well, firstly, in her opinion, things have gotten worse on the streets of Hackney. Overall crime is down but so are the number of police (thanks to government cuts since 2010). But incidents of knife crime are on the rise. You only have to read the news or social media to know that.
She thinks the TV drama Top Boy, set in Hackney but never named as such, is a “very, very real” depiction of gang culture in the borough. She’s well placed to offer an opinion. After all, she has a unique position, a bird’s‑eye view with (literally) 360-degree perspective.
Laura mentions the shooting of two brothers who were sat in a car, and a stabbing somewhere between Hackney Central and London Fields. “He was actually a high-ranking gang member and he had a couple of knives on him. A car pulled up, must’ve spotted him, and they jumped out and started stabbing him. As soon as the call came in, we turned [the camera] around. He was still alive then, the paramedics were working on him… And we obviously have to watch all that footage to let the police know who got in that car, give them descriptions, where the car went.”
On another occasion, Laura’s time-served instincts kicked in as she watched “some guy” arguing with a bouncer outside a club in Dalston.
“As I kept the camera on him, he’s gone into the corner and he’s opened his jacket, and he’s just fiddling there – he had a handgun. Now, that was a public place – there’s loads of people around there. But he got on a bus, and we followed it all the way down to Shoreditch. We followed him and [directed] the Trojan officers [the Metropolitan Police’s specialist firearms units] and the rest of them… I think the man ended up getting a five-years sentence.”
I’m not wholly comfortable with the feeling that my journey, say, down Kingsland Road from Stoke Newington to Shoreditch, could be tracked all the way by lamppost-mounted CCTV and TfL cameras. Isn’t all this an invasion of privacy?
“No,” replies Pete. “Wherever there’s a camera, it’s signposted with a number and who it’s operated by. There’s a map available online for anyone to view where you can see all the locations. It’s not like we’re hiding anything. Anything covert, we don’t do often to be honest,” he says, referring to undercover operations against suspected gang members, dealers or terrorists. “And we would have to get permission for that.”
“No,” agrees Laura firmly. “We’re just here to protect you.”
Down in the heart of Shoreditch, a bicycle-mounted soundsystem is bringing the party right here, right now, right to the rain- soaked pavement. A television-sized speaker, strapped to the handlebars, is blasting out a reggae backing track as the travelling MC, straddling his bike’s frame, performs enthusiastically over the top. The three girls smoking cigarettes in a nearby doorway join in, dancing around in the rain.
A couple of metres away a young man is being pressed against a wall, surrounded by uniformed officers. His hands are cuffed in front of him and a clear plastic bag clinks at his feet. He’s wearing two sets of trackie bottoms.
According to Wells and the police surrounding him, this is a red flag. Yes, wearing two pairs of trousers is a “look”, but the police see it as a potential way of hiding drug paraphernalia, contraband or weapons.
Weaving through the bumper-to-bumper traffic streaming up and down the road, he’s led to one of the two marked vans parked in the middle of the street to be searched properly, safely and discreetly. A policewoman follows, toting a bag of laughing-gas canisters and balloons.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the high street, his single-trousered mate is being uncuffed, issued with a fine and ordered to disappear. With its legitimate use as a foaming agent for whipped cream, laughing gas, or nitrous oxide – “nox” to the police, “nos” on the streets – isn’t a banned substance, so the police can’t arrest dealers. But you do need a peddler’s licence to sell anything on the street, so council officers can issue fines for illegal hawking.
It’s one way to disperse and discourage nox dealers who, police and CCTV observations suggest, can graduate to more serious crimes – drug dealing, robbery – as the evening progresses. It’s also a way to reduce the piles of unrecyclable, silver, bullet-shaped canisters that are swept up in their hundreds by council street-cleaning teams the next day, all destined for landfill.
A Hackney Council employee, wearing only a stab vest over his shirt despite the late hour and wet weather, mingles with the police, chalking off a couple of his evening’s collars. So far tonight he and his team of enforcement officers have issued eight £150 fines, including two given to a pair of Extinction Rebellion fly-posters who are charged with anti-social behaviour.
Past us stream an unending crowd of drinkers, clubbers, gig-goers, Uber seekers and takeaway hunters, barely any of them giving a second glance to the police activity. The atmosphere is lively and good-humoured, the pavements heaving despite the shitty weather.
But above our heads, a camera on a lamppost pivots.
A radio squawks into life. It’s Laura back in the CCTV centre. “More suspected nox dealers,” she says, “in Rivington Street.” Four of the coppers peel off, jogging around the corner.
Wells and I climb into the Public Space Surveillance Team’s Mercedes Sprinter, a purposely high-profile mobile unit emblazoned with chevrons, flashing lights and a roof-mounted camera.
Wells has stuck a magnetic sign on the side of the van that says “Kerb Crawler Patrol”, so that’s what we do next, driving up Kingsland Road to the northern end of Hackney to monitor one of the borough’s other core night-time challenges. The quiet residential streets bordering Clissold Park, full of super-expensive Victorian houses, are the favoured haunt of sex workers, sex pests and kerb crawlers. Residents are fed up with encountering the prostitution debris and drug detritus, the used condoms, the used needles and the human waste.
“One of the side-effects of heroin is that users often void their bowels soon after taking it,” notes Wells matter-of-factly. No one likes stepping over that on their way to work/college/school, so there are cameras here, too, plus regular patrols by the van.
If the fixed, mobile or relocatable Stryker cameras record a suspicious number plate, it’s passed to police. They’ll then contact the registered keeper – “and if that’s your wife, partner or company, that’s rather embarrassing” – and ask them to come in and explain why they were driving slowly around the streets of Hackney late at night.
But tonight, all is quiet. “Fantastic – not one prostitute,” says Wells. “That really cheers me up.”
Of course, this doesn’t address the issue of desperate women seeking a living, and Wells explains that there are other agencies, from the council to the NHS to independent advocacy groups, which are part of a chain of support for sex workers. But getting them off the streets by using surveillance, with the concomitant benefit of deterring kerb crawlers from hassling young girls, teenagers and other women in these residential neighbourhoods, is the immediate priority.
Back in the CCTV bunker, we catch up on Laura and Pete’s screen time. He’s tracked a couple, possibly drunk, having a huge argument in the street in front of their five kids, and Laura noticed the return of one of the nox dealers she saw earlier. He was promptly arrested.
Pete also had the pleasure of reconnecting with a familiar acquaintance, an individual he’d previously caught on camera masturbating in a side street. He didn’t seem to have a nickname for him.
It’s almost 3.30am, meaning it’s dinner time for Pete: a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle (“It’s not a king-size unfortunately,” he laments). It’s also home-time for me.
I cycle along the now quiet Stoke Newington Church Street: none of the pubs in this corner of Hackney open very late. Then I reach a corner five minutes from where I live, one I walk or cycle through pretty much nightly. I’d just watched historic (but still relatively recent) footage of a mass brawl between teenagers that took place at this junction.
Andy Wells had directed my gaze to one young man. “Watch his hand,” he said.
I watched his hand. In the melee he caught up with someone and repeatedly stabbed him in the leg. Then they milled about for a bit. Then, suddenly, they legged it. The police were coming. The CCTV kept on the knifeman, following him all the way into a neighbouring estate.