'If you're doing nothing wrong, there's nothing to worry about' - what police say about their recent use of dispersal orders across Preston
Anti-social behaviour has a considerable impact on the lives of many people, with adverse implications for community life.
From impromptu games of “knock and run,” to groups of youths throwing stones, residents in some parts of Preston have been plagued by anti-social behaviour in recent months.
But as irritating as these activities are, quite often they do not constitute a crime.
So what can police do if no crime has been proven - but someone’s life is being made a misery?
Enter an increasingly well-used part of the police toolkit - the dispersal order.
Despite being introduced a while ago, dispersal order powers under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, had not been used very often in the city, up until now.
Recently, there have been a number of them, including in the Skeffington Road area last month, and in New Hall Lane, Broadgate and Leyland in July.
But what are they, and more importantly what do they do?
The orders allow Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) and police officers to direct a person to leave the area specified if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that their behaviour has caused, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to members of the public. Failure to comply with the order can result in arrest.
Insp Pat Worden of Preston Police has been responsible for authorising many of the recent orders that have been publicised.
He explains: “It has been used more frequently in recent times simply due to better awareness about the power, and better ways of identifying repeated anti-social behaviour in communities. We are using new software which flags to us repeat victims and locations - for example, we identified repeat calls in the Broadgate area.
“We take all our repeat victims seriously because what seems minor on the surface might be massive to someone else - especially if they have other issues such as mental health problems.”
Imposing a dispersal order means officers can focus resources on the designated area, such as patrols to reassure the community, and allows police to remove anyone from the highlighted area in order to prevent the harassment of residents, or further disorder.
Insp Worden adds: “Quite often it’s juveniles congregating on the street, not necessarily doing anything.
“The power means officers are able to go down to a particular group and give them a direction to leave, but it’s rare for a direction to be issued as key community contacts and the media are usually aware the order is in force so most people know about it - normally the juveniles involved just leave.
“Quite often they’ll go into an associate’s address.
“They’re short-term measures that allow us to establish control of an area straight away.
He added: “If people are doing nothing wrong, they’ve nothing to worry about. Just because we have a power to ask people to leave, we don’t necessarily have to use it.
“For example, many of our Eastern European communities meet and chat in the street and are minding their own business.”
The inspector says they have had some good results, adding: “The five orders we have used in Broadgate worked straight away and from them, we identified individuals with the help of the community. In our experience, it’s rare people causing issues come from outside that community. We might get a drug-related issue popping up now and again but the target area are people doing it on their own doorstep.
“They could be leaving bikes in front of cars so vehicles can’t get past, knocking on doors and running away, or throwing stones.
“We’ve seen minor damage like a broken window or car damage.”
The issues can vary greatly between neighbourhoods - for example, Deepdale has a different geography to Broadgate.
Deepdale’s issues have included problems near the skate park, and disputes between two groups.
In the Skeffington Road area, the focus has been on children throwing stones off a building site.
Insp Worden added: “It’s calmed down - we’ve identified those responsible.
“Once identified, we contact families and parents. Most are mortified police have knocked on their door, but for those known to us through the criminal justice system we try to get our early intervention teams involved.”
What community leaders say
Police say dispersal orders can be a useful tool.
But some critics say the orders are simply “sticking plasters”.
Some victims want more than a short term order, and say they need police back on the beat.
Over the summer, disabled resident Kamran Ahmed, 43, faced three days of aggravation at his Deepdale home.
Mr Ahmed, who lives with his children and wife, said: “Kids were kicking doors, throwing cans. I was in my wheelchair and a girl gave me racist abuse.
“I rang the police in front of them and they weren’t bothered. Later on they were jumping on cars.
“The dispersal order did make a difference at the time, but ultimately we need more PCs supporting the PCSOs in the area.” His view is shared by resident Irfan Sabir, who filmed youths throwing cans of alcohol through his open door over the summer.
He has since become the chairman of a new Deepdale community group Deepdale Community Association, and a neighbourhood watch scheme in the Counties area.
He explains: “We were among the victims that led to the dispersal order being imposed. We had two days of persistently ringing the police - but officers only came the next day when it was too late.
“The problem is we only have PCSOs on our area now and no designated neighbourhood officer.
“We want a PC on the beat to tackle these issues long term - not a short-term measure.
“We want to show that as a community, anti-social behaviour will be no longer tolerated in Deepdale and that we will take it to the highest level.”
Others have said using the dispersal orders simply displaces the problem - one report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said nationally, orders had sometimes led to problems being shifted to other places.
There are also concerns the designation of a dispersal zone communicates a powerful or negative message about an area - and that they infringe on law abiding people’s rights.
In response, Coun Robert Boswell, who represents Tulketh, says: “That’s a judgement call. Is it better to look bad, or take action to try and resolve the problem?
“Sometimes people have to accept restrictions on rights to protect the rights of others.”