The theory is that dealing with petty vandalism can reduce serious crime. Police tried it in Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex. Nicholas Roe reports
It was a piece of mind-boggling irony. I was mooching through down-at-heel Shoreham-by-Sea in East Sussex looking for evidence of vandalism and the yob culture. There had to be some, because police here recently launched "Operation Meldrew" - a week-long effort to target the kind of offences normally overlooked in the racier fight against crime: spitting, littering, swearing, cycling on the pavement, rowdy behaviour, yobbism. OK. Where was it then?

Whack! The ice-cold contents of a can of Coke caught me full in the face. I'd been yobbed. And whack again. A woman nearby suddenly found that her bright white fun-fur coat had been dappled into mock-giraffe by a second salvo. By an open window on a bus inching past, a group of teenagers howled with glee, ducking to conceal faces. But the barriers were down on a level crossing up ahead, and the bus had to stop ...

What happened next was wincingly embarrassing, but to savour the detail you must understand what's been going on in Shoreham lately.

"Operation Meldrew". Named after the grumpy old complainer in TV's One Foot In The Grave, it was not so much an answer to a town running riot as one policeman's response to a permanent whinge of discontent.

"I get a lot of complaints," says Inspector Tony Wakeford, head of the local police, "but not about burglary or rape, because this is Shoreham. It's about the small things - spitting, noisy stereos in cars, cycling on pavements. When you add them together it's a substantial block of public opinion concerned about people's disregard for the community."

More cannily, Inspector Wakeford knew that experiments in New York have reduced major crime by targeting all offences, big and petty. There, they call it "Zero Tolerance". Here, "Meldrew". Ah, well. He decided to try it one week last month and here's a sample of what happened after Shoreham's policemen scanned the local by-laws and went on patrol.

In Southwick Square, just outside the main town, a group of teenagers went skateboarding one evening, knocking over bins and getting in the way. Someone rang the police, who, unusually, came. The kids gave some lip ("They were aggressive - it's not threatening, but it's not nice," admitted one officer) but finally decamped to a park.

In the town centre a man spat on the pavement, the gob landing three inches from a sergeant's boot. The man was called back and told off.

On a footbridge linking the town to a suburb called Shoreham Beach a stream of bikers were cautioned for ignoring "No Cycling" signs: one called the police "pigs"; others were agog.

In the high street, a man dropped litter and was told to pick it up. Did so. Kids were stopped for throwing fireworks. Others were nabbed for ringing doorbells and running away.

And so on. Nothing racy. No nee-nahs. A total of 124 warnings were handed out; 124 separate sets of names and addresses were duly logged in pocket- books, leading - by police account - to 124 jaws dropping and much local applause.

But that's their story. And you can either nod approvingly or - as police themselves often do - close one eye. What about the punters?

"Don't use my name," said the pensioner on the footbridge. "I live on my own, you see. On two nights last week eggs were thrown at my bungalow, then my letterbox was ripped off. All those things go on. People cycle over the footbridge here and when you tell them not to you get a lot of abuse. It's dangerous." As we talked, two cyclists whizzed past - and neither of us said a word. The lady thought "Meldrew" was great.

So did the 40-year-old shopkeeper. "I'd rather you didn't use my name," he said, "or the kids will come round my shop. The fact is, it's the same old story: there's not much for young people to do except hang around in gangs, spitting, dropping litter. We used to do it, but we got told off. Now it's different. I think "Meldrew" ought to be done from time to time. If we don't, they'll run riot." Desperate stuff, see?

And then came Trevor Chapman, 21, just nipping out from the Burrell Arms. Trevor was cool but angry.

"The police, they harass us youngsters, definitely," he said. "A couple of us walked home from the pub the other month and I have to admit that one of my friends shouted at one of the officers, but I had nothing to do with it and the policeman was effing and blinding at me. I said I wouldn't speak to him unless he stopped swearing."

So let's get this straight: Trevor's complaint was that the police were foul-mouthed in public? "They treat you as if you have done something wrong," he nodded. "They're just downright rude. The majority are bad- mouthed, and they criminalise you."

So down with Meldrew? Nope. "It's a good thing and makes everyone aware of what's going on. Makes them realise they can't go round abusing the place. It's a very nice town, really."

At Shoreham's only state secondary school, King's Manor, I asked five charming, articulate pupils about their own view of local yobbism.

Amy, 14, said, "I don't think the police are strong enough. When I hear of things going on, it sounds like they don't take names, they just say, `I'm aware of that.'" Nobody thought that swearing was very bad; spitting was only dubious, but the rest - littering, cycling on pavements and so on - they hated.

The headmaster, David McLean, said he received two calls a week complaining about his pupils. In fact, he gave the figure then said "don't publish it" - but that was becoming a Shoreham hallmark. In any case, the school itself isn't the culprit.

Mr McLean added, "If you ask yourself how the present situation has arisen it is because - well, take cycling on the pavement: most people are not aware that they are doing anything illegal. It has arisen because we have allowed it to happen."

He offered a tale of two letters from the local rector, both arriving on the same day, one thanking the kids who helped at a recent music festival, the second pointing out that two King's Manor pupils had just biked through the churchyard during a burial service, had almost collided with the coffin, and had then jeered.

McLean described both letters to school assembly, making a point which seemed eerily relevant to the streets of Shoreham: that the work of many had been ruined - by two yobs.

And so to that Coke incident. By now I'd spoken to worthies such as Beryl Ferrers-Guy, chair of the town's police consultative group, who said, "People are fed up with these trivial things and fed up with getting a mouthful of abuse when they try and stop them." Right.

Back at the bus, the lady in the giraffe-skin coat followed me on board, where for five minutes we faced sniggering denials from 10 mid-teenagers. But the spirit of "Meldrew" lived. We spoke to the driver, then announced that we were taking the bus to the police station. And someone owned up. The culprit was from King's Manor and the school says that the boy is writing to say sorry, and will pay for any damage.

Our turn to smirk? Maybe, but "Operation Meldrew" itself could merit a more thoughtful reaction. During that single week, recorded crime in Shoreham fell from 40 to 27 incidents. Tony Wakeford is wary of drawing conclusions until he has repeated the experiment next year, but in New York they don't doubt that "Zero Tolerance" has worked across the board. And on the streets of Shoreham the response is reassuringly crisp: "Crime dropped?" smiled one cynic. "Well, surprise, surprise"