Police powers used to tackle disorder in Suffolk and Essex face criticism
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New police dispersal powers intended to cut crime and improve public order were used dozens of times in the weeks following their introduction in Suffolk.
Police declared 37 dispersal zones across Suffolk during the seven weeks that followed October’s introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, according to figures published this week.
The Act gave police officers and Police Community Support Officers wide ranging new powers to “disperse” members of the public from a given location to prevent crime or public alarm.
Previously, orders could be invoked only if there was a “significant and persistent problem” with anti-social behaviour, but now a more vague condition requires only that the powers “may be necessary” to prevent such occurrences.
The changes also mean orders can: stand for 48 hours, rather than 24; apply to individuals, rather than groups; and allow for the confiscation of property.
A Suffolk police spokesman said the orders offered a “means of taking pro-active action in preventing crime or anti-social behaviour” in situations where members of the public are being “intimidated, harassed or distressed”.
However, libertarian campaign group the Manifesto Club has criticised the new powers in its report Dispersal Notices – The Crime of Being in a Public Place, which looks at how often they are used by police forces around the country and for what reasons.
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Based on figures from 23 forces, the report estimates as many as 13,000 people were dispersed under the order in the first six months of its use, with “the mere presence of crowds often seen as justification enough to invoke powers”.
“These shifts mean that the power to disperse individuals from public spaces is no longer an exceptional power existing only in particular areas,” it adds. “In effect, police forces now have a roaming power to banish people from the streets.”
In Suffolk the orders were used mainly in town centres, with 17 issued in Ipswich, six for Haverhill, and five in Newmarket.
Seven of the orders were imposed for a full 48 hours over a weekend and five of the orders were issues on Halloween – a typically busy night for anti-social behaviour.
The report also mentions that Essex Police cited “Bonfire Night” as the reason for introduction of a dispersal zone, although overall figures for the county were not available.
Their widespread use, the report suggests, shows that police see them as an “experiment, rather than a last resort”.
“It also suggests that authorities are not imposing very stringent conditions upon the use of powers which deprive citizens of their freedom of movement,” the report adds.
Suffolk Constabulary said its policing teams monitor crime and anti-social behaviour to identify seasonal trends and areas where disorder is likely to increase, so that orders can be used to ensure public safety.
“There is specific regulation around the use of dispersal orders and decisions to use these powers are not taken lightly,” a spokesman added.
“As a result, authorisation to put the order in place is required by an officer of inspector rank or above. The key objective when using legislation of this kind is to ensure the safety of members of the public.”
Highlighting guidance that accompanies the Act, the report says police and crime commissioners have a “key role” in ensuring officers are “using the power proportionately”.
Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore said: “The use of dispersal orders is a very useful tool for the Constabulary and I support the use of them when required.
“The Chief Constable has operational independence to use the orders as he sees fit; my role is to hold him to account which I do through regular meetings which are open to the public if people.”
Suffolk Constabulary did not provide reasons for its dispersal orders but some that did, such as Norfolk police, cited reasons such as “begging” “drugs” or “prostitution”.
Home Office response
The Home Office has defended the new policing powers as a “quicker and easier” means to take action against anti-social behaviour and the “blight” it casts over communities.
“Dispersal powers are designed to be preventative, allowing police to stop problems from escalating and provide immediate short-term respite to local communities,” a spokesman added.
“Their use is subject to a clear legal test - that there is likely to be anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder in an area - and must be authorised by an officer of at least the rank of inspector to ensure it is proportionate.”
The Home Office also advises police to consult with councils and the community before imposing orders and officers must give a written warning when one is in force.
Restrictions included in the Act mean the powers cannot restrict access to people’s homes, workplaces or medical treatment, nor can they be used at a public procession or peaceful union picket.