Earlier this month, Moazzam Tariq was found guilty of sexual assault against a woman after a night out in Ontario, Canada. In sentencing, the judge mentioned extensive surveillance video footage that showed Tariq giving the complainant alcohol. This was marked as evidence that proved the woman could not consent.
The introduction of security footage in courtrooms as evidence is increasingly common. With the number of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras rising, the likelihood of images deemed relevant for criminal proceedings being recorded also increases.
However, while CCTV footage may arguably have assisted in achieving convictions in some high-profile cases, can it assist in the overall reduction of violence against women?
Where it has helped.
A well-known example in Australia of CCTV helping solve a crime is the footage pulled from a shop on Sydney Road the night Jill Meagher was raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley. This footage was mentioned in his sentencing in 2013.
In the same year, Simon Gittany was found guilty of the murder of his partner Lisa Harnum. CCTV footage – taken from his own security cameras – was again interpreted as key evidence.
Beyond the courtroom, news media reports of crime are saturated with the use of CCTV footage. In both contexts, it is often seen to be decisive – an authoritative and objective witness that can tell us “what really happened”.
While used in a range of offences, its inclusion in instances of extreme (and public) violence against women can mean certain images receive significant and sustained media attention, and may remain online indefinitely.
The strength of CCTV in our public consciousness is such that questions of privacy are often dismissed as inconsequential. CCTV installed in the homes of family violence victims has even been considered.
But there are concerns.
In Australia, women are far more likely to experience sexual violence or be killed by a current or former partner than a stranger. Both of these crime types are also most likely to occur in a residential setting, and therefore probably away from the gaze of CCTV.
Despite these statistics, myths persist. It is assumed most rapists are strangers or that there will be clear evidence of sexual violence.
Circulating images relating to the sexual assault of Meagher or the victim in Canada – both of which took place near CCTV and in non-residential areas – risks further embedding these assumptions, given the persuasive power of media representation.
Also, some Australians have a very poor understanding of sexual consent. They assume non-consent will be obvious, or that a woman may lie because she has regrets about having sex. Placing great emphasis on CCTV footage in criminal proceedings to prove guilt is troubling for this reason.
Tariq was reportedly found guilty on the weight of security footage and not simply because the victim told police she had no memory of consenting to sex. News media have further reported that video evidence made up for the victim being an unreliable witness due to her consumption of alcohol.
Like most forensic evidence, CCTV footage still requires interpretation. And yet when admitted as evidence, it can take precedence over other witness testimonies. This is particularly concerning given that sexual assault cases often rely on victim testimony.
Already a traumatic process, if a victim’s account comes into conflict with CCTV footage, the strength of the prosecutors’ decision to proceed in a sexual assault case diminishes.
With only 20% of all sexual assaults estimated to be reported to police, CCTV footage – either its absence or its conflicted account – could negatively impact this rate.
It shouldn’t be essential.
Even if CCTV were installed in homes to reduce violence against women, it may not help.
Simon Gittany subjected Lisa Harnum to intimate partner violence prior to her death. This included the installation of security cameras facing into their apartment for the purposes of watching her.
On the day Harnum was killed, however, Gittany had switched all but one off in the morning. Installing CCTV may not prevent violence against women in residential areas, but instead extend it.
Thinking beyond the immediate utility of CCTV in specific criminal cases, images reproduced for other purposes – that is, beyond finding a “guilty” verdict – should also be considered in the context of violence.
The “cultural afterlife” of criminal evidence can be unmediated in its use. Materials can be used in new ways, such as artwork, and often without the consent of individuals depicted.
Not only this, the unnecessary reproduction of CCTV footage that replays a traumatic moment in someone’s life may be considered unethical and harmful.
With the expansion of CCTV in public and private settings, it is important to interrogate its purpose in both the courtroom and the news.
Rather than assuming its account as “best witness” or simply harmless, we should revisit underlying causes of crime so that CCTV need not be essential in reducing violence against women.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.