It’s a stark statistic. On average, at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia. Violence against women is now recognised as a serious and widespread problem, described by our politicians as a crisis. And importantly, crimes like this are more likely to occur in a residential setting.
This year’s Victorian state budget included a $1.9 billion package to tackle family violence. Part of this was a statewide Personal Safety Initiative, which expands a trial of installing technology – such as CCTV, personal alarms and security doors – in the homes of at-risk women.
While the Victorian Government should be commended for recognising that support for victims should be increased, a reliance on security technology like this to resolve embedded social problems may be misguided.
Several recent cases of suspected domestic violence that have led to allegations of murder highlights the shortfalls of CCTV-based evidence in cases like these, whether it’s used as evidence for the prosecution or the defence.
It means that key issues regarding the use of CCTV in responses to family violence must be reconsidered, and the question asked: while CCTV footage may have helped achieve convictions in some cases, can it help in the reduction of violence against women?
How CCTV and other cameras may be used
A recent report estimated more than 160,000 people experienced family violence in Victoria in 2015-16. This cost the state $5.3 billion. Around $2.6 billion of this stemmed from individuals’ pain, suffering, physical and psychological health impacts and loss of income.
In this context, the $17 million announced for the installation of technology like CCTV seems relatively small. But following a “successful” pilot program, CCTV installed in victims’ homes was commended for reducing intervention order breaches, and for working as evidence in court to demonstrate when breaches did occur.
Those who took part in the trial say they feel safer in their home with CCTV. This is significant, particularly as family violence is a key driver of homelessness, and other countries around the world, like the UK have implemented similar measures.
Technologies like CCTV are attractive in terms of policing. Visual evidence has a lot of currency for criminal and civil proceedings. Victoria Police is trialling body-worn cameras when attending family violence incident scenes for this reason. CCTV may also be useful in courtroom settings to reduce the need for a victim to encounter their offender.
While technology may be used well in these instances, the expansion of such programs into the home necessitates a closer consideration of risks.
Importance of introducing safeguards
While there may be short-term successes, CCTV’s long-term effectiveness in deterring criminal behaviour is still inconclusive and disputed internationally.
Because CCTV does not tackle the underlying causes of violence, displacement of crime – where there is a relocation of crime as a result of crime-prevention efforts –often follows. In the context of family violence, this means that while a victim may be temporarily safe in her home her other movements, like leaving for work, may become riskier. There is a danger that this could create new forms of isolation.
There also needs to be an awareness of how CCTV is positioned around the property as it could have significant impact on its effectiveness. If it is only facing outside, then a camera can misinterpret the conditions in which someone enters the home.
It’s also worth considering that family violence can be coercive in more ways than sexual and physical aggression. Economic and psychological violence is also often prevalent, and these behaviours will not be visible to a camera. CCTV may not be able to capture these subtle forms of manipulation, for example refusing to provide financial support for children unless conditions are met or, say, threats to self-harm.
Family violence is also complex and traumatic for victims. Feelings of shame or a belief that it “might get better” may also come into the mix. If footage emerges of a victim talking to, engaging with or inviting in a perpetrator, this may be used against a victim to shift blame and perpetuate myths that minimise or excuse violent behaviour.
It’s also important that there are proper safeguards in place around the use of CCTV footage used as evidence to prevent this. As well as considering the extreme implications for proportionality and privacy of cameras inside the home.
The CCTV cameras used in the Victorian trial were connected to static internet addresses. Victims were not provided with direct access, instead, they were given an application on their phone to check the cameras before going outside or coming home. This means that a number of hardware and software is used in this operation, and facilitated through internet connections.
This need for connectivity highlights the importance of cyber-security for the CCTV cameras themselves. Last year, hackers compromised more than 25,000 digital video recorders and CCTV cameras in a single attack. Before installing any sort of surveillance device into the homes of thousands of vulnerable families, strict cyber-security measures need to be properly evaluated and adhered to.
Where we should focus our attention
Like an apprehended violence order, the installation of CCTV cameras in the most extreme cases of family violence may be beneficial in temporarily disrupting the threat of physical abuse. However, it is not likely to have meaningful long-term effects.
Without any longitudinal studies existing to demonstrate its effectiveness, it is unlikely that CCTV in the context of family violence will be any more productive than it has been for preventing other types of crime. When also considering issues of displacement and the potential for footage to be misinterpreted, arguing that it will be used as evidence is not, on its own, enough to justify a complete rollout.
Instead, the Victorian Government should be encouraged to continue leading its investment in the integration of social and health services, and to focus on shifting attitudes as a better prevention strategy. They have started to lead the way in these engagements.
And the Australian media has a role to play here. News outlets have an ethical duty in focusing on these policies, and must therefore consider the implications of needlessly circulating CCTV images. Future court proceedings and future public engagement with the causes – and best preventions – of family violence depend on this.
For victims, CCTV may provide an attractive option for immediately responding to very real, and serious, threats of family violence. At the same time though, it’s important to ask the larger questions around the reasons behind its causes and how we, as a society, can bring these statistics down. If CCTV is to be installed, let’s be cautious so that we can get it right and reduce any needless trauma for future victims.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
A version of this article also appears on The Conversation.