War on anti-social behaviour needs more bobbies on the beat

Sir Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has today delivered a blunt assessment of the fight against the “disease” of anti-social behaviour.

Sir Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has today delivered a blunt assessment of the fight against the “disease” of anti-social behaviour, accusing the police of “retreating from the streets” and allowing the problem to “fester”.

In a hard-hitting report entitled ‘Anti-social Behaviour: Stop the Rot’, Sir Denis strongly criticises the police’s approach, saying:

“ASB does not have the same status as ‘crime’ for the police.”

In response to this inertia, a demoralised general public vote with their feet, with just a quarter of the estimated 14 million actual incidents of anti-social behaviour in the past year getting reported. Yet these still accounted for 45 per cent of all calls to police – one call every 10 seconds.

Sir Denis blasts forces for “screening out” too many anti-social behaviour calls and for tolerating a damaging “degree of normalisation” around drunken behaviour and vandalism that should not be accepted.

In response, he suggests the police should adopt an “early intervention strategy” similar to those used in health and education:

“It will require reform of police availability and a refocusing on what causes harm in communities, rather than what is or is not a ‘crime’.”

Part of the failure to develop a systematic response stems from the absence of a “precise definition” of ASB. The report describes it as:

“… a mixed bag of crime, disorder, and their precursors, with rowdy/disorderly behaviour being the overwhelming majority of reported events…”

Although the British Crime Survey shows official crime rates are at their lowest levels for 29 years, Sir Denis’s report finds that in contrast:

“… the ‘non-qualifying’ anti-social behaviour issue and its variants, that signal lack of control on our streets, have grown and evolved in intensity and harm.”

Yet two thirds of forces failed to properly record people who have suffered repeat cases of anti-social behaviour. And it is the most vulnerable who suffer from this hands-off approach.

The report finds 29 per cent of those who called police over anti-social behaviour last year had a long-term illness or disability and almost half of people surveyed had changed their routines through fear of anti-social behaviour, by avoiding certain streets or not going out at night.

The report makes clear that it is the police who are bang to rights for failing to take a proper lead on anti-social behaviour. Stronger, more direct accountability in the shape of elected police commissioners may help to sharpen their focus on the public’s priorities, but this is fundamentally a question of resources.

Earlier this year, Sir Denis revealed that an average of only 11 per cent of officers and police community support officers (PCSOs) were able to meet frontline demands at any one time.

Yet people in terrorised communities want to know the blue lights and sirens will back them up, first time, every time when they report these incidents. O’Connor says there is no substitute for “feet on the street” but the Police Federation earlier this month claimed that eight forces have already announced plans that will see 3,500 officers scrapped. In the West Midlands force area, that equates to 10 per cent of the total, some 1,000 officers.

Meanwhile, Grahame Maxwell, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead for finance and resources, said:

“The reality is that the scale of cuts currently being discussed is so significant that protecting the frontline cannot mean maintaining the frontline at current levels.”

He added:

“We will need honest conversations with politicians and the public about what services policing continues to deliver, and what stops.”

So there is a big gap between the reality – according to ACPO – about what can be achieved and between O’Connor who is suggesting what must be achieved to address anti-social behaviour. Big Society rhetoric about working with communities, more direct accountability to the public and an internal cultural shift in police thinking are all needed, but, ultimately, tackling ASB is about deterrence and rapid response; both of which require adequate resourcing that will not be forthcoming amid the government’s cuts.

So despite the Inspector’s searing critique of the current strategy, our war on anti-social behaviour will continue to be waged without the troops and equipment needed to win it.

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