ASB dispersal powers: The crime of being found in a public place

One of the new powers in the wide-ranging Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (which came into force on 20 October) is the power to disperse groups or individuals.

These new dispersal powers are more draconian than the old dispersal powers (available section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003), in the following ways:

    – Areas do not have to be designated a dispersal zone in advance; a police inspector can on-the-spot designate any area a dispersal zone;

    – The new powers allow for the confiscation of property;

    – The new powers allow for somebody to be banned from an area for 48 hrs (rather than 24);

    – The new powers can be used against single individuals (rather than groups of two or more people);

    – The new powers can also be used by Community Support Officers, as well as police officers.

Police forces across the country have swiftly made use of these new powers, with inner city areas, towns, villages and parks declared areas from which somebody can be barred for 48 hrs. Significantly, the vast majority of these powers have been used preemptively, rather than in response to a likely public order problem.

It appears that these powers are largely being used on a Friday night, to bar certain individuals from an area for the course of the weekend.

There have been dozens of dispersal orders issued; and a handful of arrests and prosecutions for the offence of failing to comply with a dispersal order. These individuals’ only offence was to be found in a town centre on a Saturday lunchtime.

Dispersal powers can be invoked against anybody an officer suspects to be ‘committing or likely to commit’ anti-social behaviour. Such a broad power amounts to little more than a free rein to police officers’ hunches about who may be ‘up to no good’. There is an obvious potential to be used in a discriminatory manner against homeless or other groups.

Here is a summary of some of the uses of dispersal powers so far:

    Liverpool City Centre – Merseyside Police put the order in place to deal with damage to property and annoyance to public in fast-food restaurants; only one direction to leave given

    Tyneworth, Tyne and Wear – three men dispersed from Tyneworth metro station for ‘causing a nuisance around the station footbridge’

    Blaenau Gwent – 48 hour dispersal zone introduced to prevent thefts on an industrial estate

    Islington – teenager arrested and charged for offence of failing to comply with a dispersal order

    Liverpool – political activists issued with dispersal notices barring them from the city centre on consecutive Saturdays

    Newbury – around 20 dispersal orders issued; one person arrested for failing to comply with order.

    Bloxwich, Walsall – 19 young people issued with orders, after powers used for the third time since 20 October;

    Oxford – police reveal that dispersal powers have been used ‘frequently’ in the city centre to disperse groups and ‘ensure a safe and welcoming environment’;

    Plymouth – one man arrested for the offence of failing to comply with dispersal order;

    Dorking town centre

    Leasowe, Wirral – weekend dispersal zone introduced;

    Lambton Village Centre and Holley Park in Lambton, Washington – 16 people barred from the village centre for the weekend;

    Leicester town hall square – 10 ordered to leave area for 48 hours; 3 later returned and will be prosecuted;

    Kirton, Lincolnshire – used in village park;

    Sutton bridge, Lincolnshire, to stop reported rave;

    South Staffordshire – for use against anticipated anti-social behaviour on bonfire night;

    Lincoln and Grantham – dispersal powers invoked over the weekends.

    Long Eaton – for use in the ‘Chestnut fair’

    Shoreditch – against nitrous oxide sellers

    Worcester city centre – police chief says “People are more than welcome to use the pubs, clubs and food outlets in the area. However, once they leave these premises we will politely ask them to move on quickly.”

    Saltash, Cornwall – targeted at ‘groups of youths found congregating’

We will be watching carefully for the use and abuse of these powers in the period ahead.