Later today Cambridge’s West Central Area Committee will consider a proposal from Cambridgeshire Police to introduce a “dispersal zone” under S30 of New Labour’s Antisocial Behaviour Act into part of the city centre. If approved PCSOs would be able to order two or more people to separate, and/or leave the area, if it is thought their presence or behaviour “has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed.” Police constables would also gain the dispersal power in-relation to those whose behaviour was not alcohol related. (For alcohol related behaviour they already have such, and further, powers under s27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006)
The committee will not take the decision. For the order to be made a senior police officer will have to put their name to it, and Cambridge’s Executive Councillor for policing, Cllr Tim Bick will have to agree to it. Despite being elected a Liberal Democrat Cllr Bick has indicated at previous area committee meetings he would be prepared to sign such an order, introducing provisions which he himself described in yesterday’s paper as resulting in:
“a regime which can limit people’s freedom of movement “
The evidence from the police focuses on the fact a dispersal zone would give their PCSOs, who predominantly patrol the city centre, powers they currently lack, enabling them to disperse groups of two or more people and require them to leave the area.
The police failed to provide a map of the proposed area as part of their proposal. I produced the one included with this article based on my attempt at interpreting the list of streets covered by, and forming the boundary of, the proposed zone.
I know the area very well and had a map in-front of me; it still took me fifteen minutes or so to identify the area; and I was left with some areas of uncertainty. One key question I have is if will those to be expelled from the area be given a map, or as last time such an order was in place, merely a list of streets. I think the list of streets is inadequate, and this is a view which was shared by magistrates called upon to sentence those who had breached orders under the provisions when they were last in-force. I want to know if the magistrate’s views have been taken into account.
Short Street and Elm Street appear to be missing from the area’s boundaries. The Elm Street omission is minor, it is clear what the intent was there, but Short Street is key because it has a junction with Willow Walk. Apparently due to the presence of the hostel on the street Willow Walk is excluded to allow residents to be expelled from the area and to return home. (Those who live in the area are not subject to exclusion from it). If Short Street is covered or not determines if hostel residents would be confined to the Willow Walk if they were expelled from the area.
There are three areas for which the evidence supporting the new zone applies to; but are omitted from the proposed area. These locations are the Brunswick area, Walkwoth Street and Claradon Street. It is unclear if this if the mistake is in the area covered by the proposed zone, or the area covered by the evidence.
Also, Mortimer Road is included in the list of streets despite being discontinuous with rest of the area and therefore not making any sense as a boundary road.
I think any Liberal Democrats expressing support for the police proposals will effectively be joining Cllr Blair in jumping ship and moving to supporting the hugely oppressive New Labour authoritarian and oppressive approach to running society.
I intend to attend the meeting and use the public speaking slot to urge councillors to remember they’ve been elected as Liberal Democrats, to protect, not erode, civil liberties.
Police officers huge powers which can restrict individual freedoms. I accept that as a necessary part of running society, however in the case of the vast majority of those powers there are substantive safeguards, checks and balances. For example if I get arrested, I have to get taken to a police station, and trained custody sgt determines if he agrees with my detention; rest of the system kicks in too, I’m protected by the rules of the PACE codes and will rapidly end up in-front of a court where my fate will (on a good day, in most places) be determined following due-process.
I don’t think the appropriate safeguards are in-place in relation to the proposed zone. What can I do if I’ve been dispersed, or expelled. unjustly? There’s nothing I can do in the relevant time period the order will be in place. I could seek judicial review, but by the time that can be put in train the effect of the order will be over.
The proposal criminalises otherwise non-criminal behaviour, such as gathering in groups. I don’t want to see just gathering in a group criminalised. A gathering of people might cause alarm; be it a group of children, youths, adults, or homeless people, whoever it is, but that’s not in my view a reason to criminalise associating with others in public.
Signage and Operation
I want to know what the proposals are for signage of the area. Previous signage has been scrappy, A4 laminated sheets containing tiny black and white maps and dense text posted on lampposts. These were not posted as the areas came into force and were left in place well beyond the period.
I want to know exactly what will the orders issued to individuals will look like? Maps or a list of streets? What information about appeal routes will be included? (The orders have to be given in writing)
More Powers to PCSOs
Giving more powers to PCSO is by far the strongest argument being made in the police submission. They hardly mention the other relevant point, which is S30 applies to those causing non-alcohol related harassment alarm and distress. Cllr Bick, has been supported unanimously by the full council in giving more powers to PCSOs in another area, to tackle speeding, and at a previous area committee councillors called for more action against cyclists without lights (another area PCSOs lack powers to act on).
My view, which I have expressed in more detail elsewhere, is that we ought give those PCSOs capable of exercising them the full powers of a constable, ie. make them constables. We would keep them on duties similar to those they currently exercise via management controls restricting how they can be deployed and what they are permitted to do (in a similar way as the activities conducted by Special Constables are limited).
I would like to know to what degree is the proposals are about reducing arrests? Many of the behaviours mentioned in the evidence are otherwise criminal, and could be dealt with by arrest; is this an effort to save money and meet the chief constable’s target of reducing the number of individuals taken into custody substantially?
Those Not Otherwise Criminal
If approved this order will end up criminalising people; who’ve not done anything criminal other than to disobey an order to disperse.
It may catch people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve had recent experience of this kind of thing, being evicted on threat of arrest from the public gallery at the council; because I was sitting in the same part of the room as someone who threw a paper airplane. I know how unjust that felt, it would be much worse if I was prevented from being in a large part of the city in which I live.
Notably the proposal is to include the guildhall in the area. The provisions could be used by the police when clearing the public gallery of the council chamber if councillors call them in, in the future.
Lots of material, raising important matters, which have a massive negative impact on how safe the city centre feels, have been included in the evidence submitted by the police but utterly irrelevant to the question of imposing a dispersal zone.
I would like to urge councillors to:
- Ignore the evidence that’s about things that would be criminal, and could be adequately dealt with without a S30 order.
- Ignore anything that’s not specifically about why PCSOs need these powers; or identifying a non-alcohol related problem, needing dispersal.
- Ignore anything that can be dealt with by S27 Violent Crime Reduction Act
The debate shouldn’t deteriorate into a discussion identifying and accepting we have a serious set of problems in the city centre, which I agree we do, but then moving onto support the dispersal zone, simply because it is something councillors are able to do. Councillors ought only support it if they feel its the right and proportionate response to the problems facing the city.
Confidence in PCSOs Acting Alone
A key question for councillors will be:
How much confidence you’ve got in PCSOs, acting alone?
John Fenton, who runs Cambridge Crepes, has told the Cambridge News he has “total trust in the police”. I’d like to see councillors be more cautious. I have a reasonable amount of faith in the system, this isn’t about the system as a whole, its about individuals acting alone.
Some PCSOs are excellent; but many I’ve come access in Cambridge are not in my view capable of exercising this degree of unchecked power.
I have in the past come across a PCSO delivering postcards to every house where I live saying that the police have found the property insecure. This caused some of my neighbours substantial alarm when they returned home, wondering if they’d been burgled. I caught up with the PCSO asking her what she was doing and she said she hadn’t read the cards she was delivering, and was just doing what her sergeant had told her.
No Named Police Officer
A named senior officer should will need to put their name to these proposals before they are formally submitted to Cllr Bick. As yet no officer has done so.
Lib Dems vs Civil Liberties Campaigners
The Cambridge News coverage of the proposals notes that Civil Liberties Campaigners are opposed to them. We shouldn’t have a situation where the Liberal Democrat councillors, elected on a platform of protecting civil liberties are at odds with such campaigners, we should all be on the same side. Unfortunately many councillors, like recent defector Clare Blair, don’t appear to have any deep seated liberal views, any they do have are easily overturned.