Friendly surveillance of nightlife more effective than heavy police deployment

11 September 2014

For a friendly, safe and economically healthy nightlife a positive approach aimed at a good atmosphere is more effective than just a show of power and 'more police on the streets'. Collaboration between entrepreneurs, the police and private security personnel in combination with video surveillance makes such an approach possible. Social geographer Jelle Brands concludes this based on a study in the NWO programme Responsible innovation. Brands defended his PhD thesis on 12 September 2014 at Utrecht University.

Friendly surveillance of nightlife more effective than heavy police deployment

Jelle Brands' PhD research is part of the research project Surveillance in urban nightscapes in the NWO research programme Responsible Innovation. In this project the key question is what the effects of surveillance are – with or without the use of technology – on users of the night-time economy. Researchers from different disciplines such as social geography and science & technology are making contributions to this.

Strict controls sometimes counterproductive

For his thesis entitled Safety, surveillance and policing in the night-time economy: a visitor perspective Jelle Brands [29] interviewed about 1000 young people aged between 16 and 25 years who regularly went for a night out in Utrecht or Rotterdam. Brands discovered that visitors to nightlife areas in large towns generally feel safe. In contrast to what is commonly thought, the deployment of police officers does not always lead to a greater feeling of safety. In particular, police officers on horseback, with dogs or in vans can alarm young people on a night out who are not aware of any danger and this can lead to people feeling uncomfortable. 'What is going on here then, and what is about to happen', the young people wonder.

'It seems that in urban nightlife districts there is a growing emphasis on strict control and preventing incidents', says Brands. 'My research shows, however, that this is not always effective and can even be counterproductive. Administrators should better focus on encouraging a good atmosphere and keeping this for as long as possible.'

Video cameras support police

The cameras already hanging in many nightlife districts can provide a key to an effective but friendly form of surveillance. According to Brands' research, most visitors are scarcely aware of the presence of cameras. Contrary to the commonly held view, they do not feel safer as a result of these. However, most young people do not feel spied on or uncomfortable due to the presence of the cameras. Brands: 'The cameras are often monitored real-time in a control room. This means police reinforcements can be kept on standby in the background and only become visible when they are needed. Then the police are more than welcome.' For the visible presence of many police officers does have a reassuring effect on the public who do not feel safe. The function of surveillance cameras in nightlife districts could therefore change. Instead of aiming to give visitors a safe feeling they would be used to support the police by enabling them to register potential escalations. Based on camera images, officers in the control room could coordinate the use of police reinforcements. In addition to cameras, private security guards and the owners of food and drink establishments could also function as the 'eyes and ears' of the police.

Soft touch

Other forms of friendly surveillance are police officers patrolling on foot or by bike who mingle among the nightlife public. They disrupt the feeling of safety less than officers on horseback, for example. In Utrecht these walking and cycling officers can regularly be seen on the street at night. Rotterdam works with food and drink establishment stewards: young people who speak to other young people as soon as an argument starts and who often succeed in preventing an escalation. In a similar manner the city of Paris is deploying pierrots de la nuit, who with street performances, humour, lollipops and whispered poems ensure the streets remain calm at night. Brands has not investigated the effect of such measures but they fit well in a logic that focuses on maintaining a good atmosphere in the nightlife district.

Fantastic nightlife

For his research Jelle Brands combined personal interviews with his own observations and surveys. During both the setting up of the research and the processing of the results not just partying young people but experts with practical experience were involved. For example, a stadsmarinier from Rotterdam, police officers, owners of food and drink establishments, city administrators and staff at expertise centres such as the Trimbos Institute. The recommendations from the research can be used by administrators to improve not just their city's safety but also its economic position. A fantastic nightlife with few incidents in which everybody feels happy improves a city's image and attracts a broad range of people who want a good night out.


Source: NWO


Science area

Humanities Social Sciences


Responsible innovation


Collaboration in themes (2011-2014) Theme: Responsible Innovation (2007-2010)