Anti-social behaviour blame game intensifies

By Alex Stevenson

Theresa May and Alan Johnson have embarked on a war of words over anti-social behaviour, after the police’s watchdog questioned officers’ commitment to tackling the problem.

HM inspector of constabulary, Sir Denis O’Connor, argued in a report that failing to monitor anti-social behaviour levels has created a mismatch between police behaviour and public perceptions.

He suggested that despite high levels of concern about the problem anti-social behaviour does not have the same status in police officers’ minds as ‘crime’.

“We need to examine the impact of the drift away from maintaining order by presence, persuasion, communication, cajoling and when needed coercion, though often short of physical force, to a model principally geared around control and the use of powers,” he wrote.

“It is time to take stock and change.”

Both Labour and the Conservatives jumped on the report as evidence of the other side’s flawed approach.

Shadow home secretary Alan Johnson said Sir Denis’ report offered a “particularly important message as the government plan cuts to police budgets which are bound to effect the front line services that deal with crime and anti-social behaviour in our communities”.

His successor, Ms May, has signalled her intention to scrap the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) in a bid to refocus efforts on community-driven initiatives.

She attacked the red-tape culture which police officers have complained about for many years under the Labour government.

“Sir Denis’ report makes clear that too much money has been spent on people sitting behind desks in meetings and not actually out there on the streets, doing the job that people want them to be doing – which is dealing with anti-social behaviour alongside dealing with other sorts of crime,” Ms May told Sky News.

Sir Denis’ report pointed out that only 22 of 43 police forces have IT systems set up to help them identify repeat calls about anti-social behaviour, while just 13 forces can effectively identify those most at risk at the time the call is made.

Public concern about common incidents of anti-social behaviour – like youths gathering on street corners, drunks urinating in shop doorways and aggressive driving in residential streets – remains high.

“Anti-social behaviour is a blight on the lives of millions who are directly affected; on the perceptions of millions more for whom it signals neglect in their neighbourhoods and the decline of whole towns and city areas; and the reputation of the police who are often thought to be unconcerned or ineffectual,” Sir Denis added.

“We need a new start.”

He recommended publishing data on anti-social behaviour in a more user-friendly form, arguing “if these issues matter then reports of anti-social behaviour should count and be counted”.

Impending funding cuts caused by the coalition government’s austerity drive will make it harder for chief constables to prioritise a shift towards anti-social behaviour, however.

“Confronted by spending cuts, some police chiefs and community safety partnership members may be tempted to reduce the amount of work they do in relation to anti-social behaviour and to concentrate instead upon volume crime,” Sir Denis told the BBC.

“All the evidence we have available indicates that this would be a very significant mistake.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers pointed out modern policing faces a number of complex challenges, including tackling serious organised crime and terrorism.

“Anti-social behaviour is not a matter for the police to tackle alone, and the service greatly supports the government’s approach to encouraging greater personal and community involvement in neighbourhoods,” Assistant Chief Constable Simon Edens said.