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Dispersal Orders 'Sticking Plaster' Over Anti-Social Behaviour

Armen Hareyan's picture

Anti-Social Behaviour

Controversial police powers aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour by dispersing groups from public places are leading to short-term reductions in crime and disorder. But the powers also shift problems to nearby areas and alienate many young people, according to the first major study of their use.

A team at the University of Leeds researched the use and impact of dispersal orders, which enable police to disperse groups in pre-designated areas where their presence or behaviour is thought likely to result in a member of the public being harassed or intimidated.

Professor Adam Crawford and Stuart Lister of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies found that in one area where an order was used, crime fell by 39% compared with the preceding six months. In another area, crime decreased by 15%.

But the study found that in many areas dispersal orders generated displacement effects, shifting problems to neighbouring areas, sometimes merely for the duration of the order. One neighbouring 'displacement zone' saw crime, notably criminal damage, increase by 83% compared with the previous year.

According to Professor Crawford, dispersal orders "can provide short-term relief and galvanise local activity". But he warns: "Unless dispersal orders are part of a wider, multi-agency strategy to provide alternative activities and venues for young people, the powers merely put a 'sticking plaster' over local problems of order and invariably fail to address the wider causes of perceived anti-social behaviour."

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Dispersal orders were first introduced in 2004 since which time over 1,000 areas have been designated dispersal zones in England and Wales. The study, which was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found a decline in young people congregating in the dispersal zones during the use of the order, and some residents reported feeling more confident about going out in the area.

But it also found that dispersal orders risk alienating young people and that in many cases, police preferred to speak and negotiate with people rather than use formal powers.

Professor Crawford says: "Dispersal orders convey stark messages about the status of young people and the way they are regarded by adults. They can reinforce a view of young people as a risk to others, obscuring the extent to which they are understood as at risk themselves."

In two case study areas most young people surveyed said that the dispersal order unfairly targeted them and in one area over half said that the dispersal order had a negative impact on their feelings towards the police.

The policing of dispersal orders has significant implications for police resources, as they demand heightened visible patrols and, therefore, can raise false public expectations about long-term police priorities. Senior police officers considered managing public expectations to be one of the most crucial challenges of dispersal order implementation, both during and beyond the lifespan of the order.

Professor Crawford notes: "Poignantly, police officers provided some of the most thoughtful insights into the limitations of the powers and the challenges they entail. There is a growing realisation among many local practitioners of the need to retain exceptional powers such as these for focused, short-term and well-evidenced use."

The study concludes by warning that government proposals to extend dispersal powers by circumventing the current authorisation process will: