On the 7th of November 2011 I attended Cambridge’s South Area Committee where councillors set the police priorities for the next period of time.
Anti-Social Behaviour Definition
Police Sergent Jim Stevenson presented the report on behalf of the police. Page six of his report listed incident types classed as anti-social behaviour. I asked why complaints against the police, fraud, road traffic collisions and burglary were included. I explained my view that it is important to have a clear definition of anti-social behaviour if it is going to be a term used by the police and suggested the definition in the report, being so far away from the natural language, common usage of the term, was likely to be unhelpful.
Sgt. Stevenson confirmed that making a complaint against the police and the other items listed were considered anti-social behaviour. He appeared surprised by this himself, but looked to me to be applying the logic that the report in-front of him said that and his name was on its cover, so it must be true.
This prompted Mr Fuller of Cambridgeshire Police to intervene. Mr Fuller is a member of police staff who accompanies police officers to public meetings and stops and corrects them when they say excessively silly things. Mr Fuller said the list included anti-social behaviour items, but wasn’t restricted to them. He said the table should not have been included in the report. Mr Fuller offered to expand further with me individually outside the meeting.
Outside the meeting Mr Fuller described a police statistics system which is utterly unfit for the way it is being used. He said that producing statistics on anti-social behaviour required statistic producing staff to trawl through records of incidents and classify them; they had to actually read the details as the incident logs don’t record if something is classed anti-social behaviour or not as those initially inputing the information into the police’s systems don’t make this distinction.
Mr Fuller said he had been away from work and if he had been around he would have prevented the publication of the table in the report. Mr Fuller shared his point of view on how Anti-Social Behaviour ought to be defined, he suggested crime and ASB were discrete sets and the ASB should used only in relation to incidents which did not involve a crime.
New Labour brought in anti-social behaviour legislation, criminalising things like failing to disperse following an instruction from a PCSO, that could render such an approach misleading if “ASB” (or associating in a group!) was the root issue but the criminality arose though failure to disperse.
Mr Fuller and I discussed the phrase “anti-social behaviour” and how it was being used in a confusing manner by the police. This is important as the “people’s priority” in the current policing plan is anti-social behaviour; but as it isn’t defined the police authority are struggling to monitor the police’s performance. In Cambridge we’ve seen burglary classed as anti-social behaviour in ward based meetings in Arbury and Kings Hedges.
I’ve attended many public meetings where anti-social behaviour has been discussed. Where the phrase is used by a member of the public they are generally using it as a “magic phrase” which they hope will prompt the police to act on; this is why we get people describing violent robberies, burglaries, and other serious crimes as anti-social behaviour. I think without exception where I’ve heard members of the public raising concerns about incidents of anti-social behaviour they are actually talking about things which were criminal before anti-social behaviour legislation was introduced.
Often “anti-social behaviour” is raised as a more abstract subject, not directly related to specific incidents, councillors, especially parish councillors, appear particularly prone to complaining about anti-social behaviour without actually explaining what it is they mean and what they’re hoping to prompt from the police. When you do get to the bottom of what’s behind their remarks though often what’s really being called for is for the police to do their basic role of keeping the peace. Sometimes people have even explained they raise “anti-social behaviour” because they think that’s something which will prompt police patrols, which provide reassurance, deter crime, and will ensure officers are present to maintain order should they be required.
On a related point I have campaigned against what I see as the misuse of anti-social behaviour laws being used to tackle speeding and careless driving. I believe the police are doing this in order to avoid due process and the courts.
In my view what needs to happen is:
- The police need to focus on crime, not the nebulous concept of non-criminal anti-social behaviour.
- When people raise concerns about “anti-social behaviour” they need to be asked exactly what they mean and what action they are seeking.
- Anti-social behaviour laws need to be reviewed to prevent their misuse by the police, and to remove the criminalisation of otherwise non-criminal behaviour.
- The police need to, as always, focus on their key role of keeping the peace and providing reassurance to people that they are capable of fulfilling that role.
Mr Fuller told me that in the past complaints against police officers were classed as anti-social behaviour, but they generally no longer were. He explained the system the police used for classifying calls was set nationally. Mr Fuller invited me to visit the police to see how terrible their procedures for recording information and creating statistics is.
Content of Reports
At the meeting I also noted that the police report omitted a number of things which councillors had requested and the police had committed to include:
- Speeding data
- Breakdown of violent crime, separating out domestic violence and violence against strangers occurring in public places.
- Outcomes of ward based meetings and street surgeries.
The meeting was told by Sgt. Stevenson that format of the reports was set by the Community Safety Partnership (this is nonsense as in other parts of the city councillors have been able to request additional material, and have been given it – including in the areas mentioned). Sgt. Stevenson, whose name was on the front of the report, said he had no control over its content.
Generally councillors were happy with the police performance. There had been excellent statistics on burglary (though not quite as good as some of the Ecops messages pointing to weeks without burglaries might have led people to expect). There were just four burglaries in Trumpington between June and September 2011 and also just four in this period in Cherry Hinton. Of course even at the lower rate of burglaries there are many people suffering immense upset and loss after being a victim of crime, but these statistics are very low historically, and in comparison with the levels which have been reached elsewhere in the city.
The police had also responded well to a previously set priority relating to drug misuse at Arran Close and councillors removed this as a priority.
In Trumpington though cycle thefts, particularly at the city end of Hills Road, near the Cambridge Leisure Site, Hills Road Sixth Form College, and the student accommodation in that area, had risen. Cllr Al-Bander proposed a specific local police priority to tackle this and the committee agreed.
Other priorities continued were youth anti-social behaviour on Cherry Hinton Green and Rec and off road and dangerous use of mopeds in Cherry Hinton and Queen Ediths.
Other notable contributions include:
Cllr Ashton reported a constituent had spent 20 minutes on the phone to the police non-emergency number with no answer. (I have recently written about the police call answering statistics and have noted the published statistics do not show how many calls were not answered after particular periods of time eg. 5, 10 or 20 minutes. The statistics only show in what percentage of calls the target answering time was met. )
Cllr Stuart complained that a constituant had captured CCTV of a cycle thief but the police had failed to look at it. (This appears, from what I’ve heard at other police meetings, to be a general problem, relating both to the city council CCTV and private systems). Cllr Stuart said her constituent was told that the police resources for dealing with CCTV footage was limited and so only available for use in relation to serious crime. From what Cllr Stuart was saying it may have been the case that the police had been told the image was not of excellent quality, but the constituent had expected to view it in any case, and perhaps get something useful from it. Sgt. Stevenson refused to talk about the matter because it had been raised in relation to an individual case (I thought he could though have addressed the general issue). Mr Fuller told me afterwards he thought a complaint to the police had been made by the constituent. I said I was pleased to hear that, and would like to hear about the outcome at a future South Area Committee. It is astonishing if the police are not interested in footage of cycle thieves. I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the investigation into the complaint in this case though; it may be the person with the footage told the police it was of poor quality and the individual was unrecognisable, so the police decided not to bother collecting it, while that might be more defensible I’d still be surprised as something on the video might be of use.
Parking near schools was raised. Sgt. Stevenson said that the police did not have the prime responsibility for dealing with this. A priority was not set (the meeting’s chair disagrees with me on this!) but the sergeant said he would send PCSOs to walk around the schools to act as a deterrent.
A related petition for parking restrictions on the corner of Godwin Way and Godwin Close, to make the street safer for residents and for children going to and from school was promoted by a resident at the meeting.
PCSOs have the powers of traffic wardens, but can’t exercise them in Cambridge because parking regulation has been decriminalised. I think this highlights a disconnect between two parts of the public sector which ought work more closely together, PCSOs ought have the powers of the civil enforcement officers from councils too.
Cllr Carter (Labour) voted on her first set of police priorities for a number of years, she has been absent for a string of meetings and at the last one abstained, claiming when questioned that she didn’t know she could vote. Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the priorities they agreed.
- Neighbourhood Profile Update Cambridge City South Neighbourhood – Police report to the meeting.
- Article by the meeting’s chair, Cllr Taylor, on the police priority setting
(I have written to Cllr Taylor to suggest that rather than saying “police agreed two new priorities” she should have said “councillors voted to set…”)