Feature: Inside Somerset's CCTV hub

Bridgwater Mercury: Barry Donbavand. Barry Donbavand.

WHILE people are partying in town centres over the New Year period, who are the unsung heroes trying to keep our streets safe? Reporter DANIEL Milligan spent a night with staff at Somerset’s CCTV hub to see how they keep Taunton in order.

HIDDEN away in the corner of an office block is a plethora of cameras, computers and radios which show the movements of people in almost every major route through Bridgwater.

A team of around a dozen people monitor some of Bridgwater’s busiest spots such as Cornhill, Taunton Road and Broadway.

They are watching over the town 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help detect and prevent crime.

For those of you who fear the county is turning into a ‘Big Brother’ state where someone is always watching you, Barry Donbavand, CCTV manager, had a message.

Barry, from Taunton, has been involved for 12 years at the centre, said: “It is important to get across to people that we are not Big Brother watching normal people – we are just there to make the towns safe, we are there for their benefit.

“We are not interested in people that are behaving themselves but we will target someone if we see something that is suspicious or we believe an offence is about to be committed.

“We can’t target someone for no reason and we can’t follow them for a long time because that would infringe on their human rights.

“We see so many people acting normally around town centres that when someone is acting unusually it sticks out - body language is a big key for us.”

The team, based in Bridgwater, cover 159 CCTV cameras across the county, 45 of which are in Taunton, and in 2012 they helped police with 12,621 incidents which led to 1,417 people being arrested.

In Sedgemoor, there were 4706 incidents which led to 498 arrests in 2012.

They often spot an incident before police have been alerted and will contact beat officers on the ground and follow offenders who may have run off from the scene of the crime.

During my night shift, the team helped police track down a man caught shoplifting, alerted door staff at venues in Taunton to refuse entry to a man who was causing trouble, and ensure that a young man who was in a scuffle with door staff was not allowed entry elsewhere, despite his attempts to change his shirt down a back alley.

We also followed a man who was involved in a fight in Bridgwater town centre but the victim did not want to press charges and so the attacker got away.

The CCTV staff work on behalf of Sedgemoor District Council, not the police, and are paid the county’s district councils to carry out surveillance on Somerset’s town centres.

They also liaise with door staff on the majority of bars and nightclubs via one radio network set up by Andy Sharman at Somerset West Businesses Against Crime.

Door staff and the CCTV team advise whether to let certain people in who have either been refused entry elsewhere or have been spotted causing trouble in the town centre.

Andy said SWBAC is the continuation of the work started in 1992, when the business crime reduction radio link was initially created in Somerset.

He added: “The radio link is an excellent communication tool for businesses to prevent and detect crime.

“The local authority CCTV provides us with additional support in delivering the effectiveness of our scheme.

“Businesses benefit from knowing that they are being monitored not just through sound but through vision as well.

“From dealing with a difficult individual in the night time economy to identifying retail thieves, CCTV is a welcome weapon is our crime fighting arsenal, which the whole community ultimately benefits from."

In Bridgwater, the team say the carnival and Rag Day prove to be the busiest times.

Barry said they do find it frustrating when people assume it is always the police or an eyewitness who has called 999 to report a crime.

He said: “Really, it is a big team effort and we might have found the offender and given police directions to help catch them.

“When people see police and emergency services dealing with something, I hope they might now think maybe that CCTV was the initial investigator.

“It is very satisfying because it is about giving something back to the community and when an offender is caught you do get a buzz out of it.”

Sedgemoor’s CCTV system was created in 1994 and expanded to cater for cameras in South Somerset and Taunton Deane.

The Bridgwater hub became the largest centre in Somerset after merging with Taunton Deane Council in 2006.

Each town across the county has its own differences and in Burnham, there are unique CCTV cameras with small wipers to help clear any spray and salt from the sea air blocking the cameras.

Barry said two of the main towns they also hope to monitor in the near future are Chard and Ilminster.

He said: “We want to be the overall hub for Somerset really but we know the people to look out for.

“People who are known offenders will go to another town for a night out because they think they will not be recognised but we can spot them straight away.”

Along with their work monitoring the cameras, the team receive out-of-hours calls from members of the public who want to report problems such as loud music, anti-social behaviour, lost dogs. They are also in charge of flooding issues and deactivating security alarms.

Two of the team, who have worked there for more than ten years, said they have noticed a big change in that time.

Karen said: “When I first started it was all on video and now we have CD’s. We have that rapport with the police so everyone knows it is part of the big team.”

Em, who has worked in the control centre for 15 years, added: “We used to have to change the tapes in the cameras every 12 hours when they were full.

“Now there are a lot more cameras in the centre of towns but you get that satisfaction when you helped to catch someone who is wanted – crime overall has dropped.

“It has changed from the police phoning us to ask about a particular offender to us actually spotting someone first and getting in touch with the police through their radio system.”

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