Police 'retreating from the streets'

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The Independent Online

Home Secretary Theresa May today said police retreating from the streets as more than 26 incidents of anti-social behaviour take place every minute was a "damning indictment" of Labour's failure to get to grips with the issue.

Mrs May spoke out after the chief inspector of constabulary said one such incident was reported to police every 10 seconds, but tackling anti-social behaviour (ASB) was often not seen as "real police work" and "does not have the same status as 'crime' for the police".

Sir Denis O'Connor said that by "retreating from the streets" since the 1970s, the police "undermined their connection with the public and allowed some of these things to gather momentum", he said.

"It was a mistake, a strategic error as they might say in military terms."

Today, Mrs May, who signalled the end of the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) and more emphasis on community involvement earlier this year, told Sky News: "This report is a damning indictment of Labour's failure to get to grips with anti-social behaviour.

"They spent record amounts of money but achieved nothing," she said.

"What we have seen over the past years is a Labour government talking about dealing with anti-social behaviour, spending a lot of money on it, but actually failing to get to grips with it.

"And we didn't see police out on the streets. Sir Denis's 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 do be doing - which is dealing with anti-social behaviour alongside dealing with other sorts of crime."

Mrs May said plans for elected police and crime commissioners "will put communities at the heart of the solution", but today's report cast doubt upon the future willingness of individuals to confront anti-social behaviour.

A poll showed 32% of those who confronted such behaviour experienced intimidation afterwards, with the figure rising to 61% in deprived areas.

Speaking at a briefing at Beormund Community Centre in Bermondsey, south east London, Sir Denis said forces across the country need to recognise that in nine out of 10 cases, police are the first authority the public turn to when suffering anti-social behaviour and a new approach was needed "to restore civility to public spaces", he said.

"The public do not distinguish between anti-social behaviour and crime," he said.

"For them, it's just a sliding scale of grief."

Only a quarter of the incidents of anti-social behaviour, about 3.5 million, were reported and communities were "becoming used to things we should not have become used to", he said.

"This kind of area matters but it doesn't count very much in the current system, not in the way that crime does. We can do better than this."

He said there had been a "degree of normalisation" around anti-social behaviour, such as dropping litter, drunken behaviour and vandalism, which should not be accepted.

It was "affecting our way of life", he said, with people avoiding certain streets, refusing to go out at night and avoiding groups of youths.

In the face of widespread cuts, reducing the amount of work done in relation to anti-social behaviour "would be a very significant mistake", he said.

Some current responses by police, including downgrading anti-social behaviour calls to a lower priority, a lack of technical ability to identify repeat victims and "long-winded invisible partnership processes", were "making matters worse", he said.

Launching today's report on how to "Stop the rot", Sir Denis said: "Make no mistake, it requires feet on the streets."

Professor Martin Innes, of Cardiff University, said the cuts mean forces will have to be "smaller, sharper and smarter" in the future.

About 45% of all calls made to the police were about anti-social behaviour in 2009/10, with 2.1 million of these related to rowdy or disorderly behaviour, the joint study by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Ipsos Mori and Cardiff University found.

A poll of more than 5,600 people who contacted police about anti-social behaviour found 71% had called at least twice in the past year, so-called "repeat victims".

It also found 32% experienced intimidation after standing up to anti-social behaviour, with this figure increasing to 61% in areas where the quality of life was deemed "bad".

The survey found 83% of those who were aware the police had taken action were satisfied with the response, but more than a third of those surveyed were unaware of any police action.

And while all 43 forces state anti-social behaviour was a priority, only 13 forces can effectively identify repeat victims and those most at risk of harm at the time of the call.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Edens, the lead on anti-social behaviour for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said: "Tackling anti-social behaviour must be achieved alongside keeping people safe through less visible parts of policing such as tackling serious organised crime or terrorism."

Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, added that the report showed it was "vitally important to retain 'feet on the beat' amidst the many changes we face and the threat of budget cuts".

Chief Supt Derek Barnett, president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, added that a "concerted effort across partner agencies, and with the involvement of communities themselves" was the most effective way to tackle the problem.

But Blair Gibbs, head of crime and justice at the Policy Exchange think-tank, accused police forces of not taking anti-social behaviour seriously enough.

A further survey of 1,000 people in the UK found anti-social behaviour was perceived as the biggest risk, more than even terrorist attacks or financial worries.

The poll, carried out by insurer RSA, also found that those in the UK were more likely to turn to the Government for help.