Last night I went to a briefing session held by Harlow Police for Harlow Council.

The purpose of the meeting was for the police to pitch their latest idea to councillors. Their latest idea being to designate more than half the town for dispersal orders.

What is a dispersal order? Well the legislation as part of the Anti-Social behaviour Act 2003 allows police to disperse groups of 2 or more persons from an area if an officer thinks that the group has caused or might cause public harassment, distress or alarm.

I don’t actually think that’s a bad law. I can see all sorts of use for this law around football stadiums, big social events, or festivals. I think it could be very useful to clear large crowds from areas where needed.

The police in Harlow were not talking about that sort of situation though, nor anything as targeted.

They were talking about moving on small groups of kids and effectively imposing a 9pm curfew on anyone under 16.

Now I know that some groups of kids do cause problems, just like I know some groups of adults cause Anti Social Behaviour Problems. The police were not concerned with the adults who cause 3/4 of all ASB (by their own stats), this was blatantly about getting the legislation in place before the school summer holidays.

I was sceptical. Very. The whole proposal seemed vastly draconian and bulky. The whole basis of the proposal seemed more about the police having the ability to just move people on if they thought there was a problem rather than dealing with it.

There were a lot of questions from the eleven councilors (of all three political parties) who had come to the presentation. Most of the councillors accepted that ASB was a problem, but like me were sceptical of the Police’s proposed solution.

I asked what powers the police didn’t already have to deal with ASB in the (mainly shopping) areas listed. The police started talking about young people swearing and spitting. When I challenged them that these were covered by public order offenses and were arrestable, they talked about kids playing knock down ginger. I wondered aloud how many games of knock down ginger get played in shopping areas. The police were not happy.

It appeared to me at the end of the meeting that the police have all the powers they need to deal with Anti Social behaviour by the powers of arrest but for the sake of “A Quiet Life/not raising their crime statistics/not wanting the paperwork or some combination of the above, they were looking for an easy out to just be able to move the kids on. Not satisfactory policing in my view.

Add to that the unseemly “rush” for the police who wanted to get this law enacted in time for the school summer holidays, and no promise of any real additional resources to enact these powers, and it all seemed more than a little ill thought through.

Members from all parties were concerned.

I have asked for a report to come to Full Council so that all elected members can give the police their views in a proper debate. I have a feeling that the police wont get the local consent they are seeking.

That must not absolve them from dealing with problems using the arsenal of laws they have at their disposal, and if that means making arrests that is what the people of Harlow want, no matter how much paperwork it generates for the police and no matter how “bad” it makes their crime stats. People want to see police on the street and arrests of troublemakers.

Perhaps it really is time for elected Sheriffs to be in charge of local policing – at least then residents concerns would finally be addressed by the police.

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