The benefits of dispersal notices

Last month, a gay couple were trapped in their home after a gang
of young people taunted and attacked them in the street outside
their house. They had to rely on friends to bring them food because
they were too scared to go out.

Thankfully, homophobic attacks such as this one are not a regular
occurrence in Camden, North London. But this was one in a line of
incidents that has persuaded Camden Council to allow the police to
introduce a dispersal notice for the second summer in a row.

A dispersal notice gives the police additional powers to ban
intimidating groups of people causing antisocial behaviour from
designated areas for up to 24 hours. Police can also take
unaccompanied children aged under 16 home to their parents or
guardians if they are found in the zone after 9pm. 

There has been a lot of debate about dispersal notices. Some
question whether they really solve problems of antisocial behaviour
and crime, or just push it around and infringe civil

Different areas will no doubt have different approaches to using
the powers, but in Camden we have made some things very clear. Most
importantly, these measures are not a curfew for teens. Our aim is
for more young people to feel safe while out and about in Camden.
The bottom line is that young people who don’t cause trouble won’t
be affected by these powers. 

In the ward I represent in Camden, police were dealing with serious
problems of disorder. Some youths were attacking cyclists, and
gangs from other parts of London were congregating in the area to
play out turf warfare. Despite a lot of good work to calm tensions,
summer is when trouble has historically flared, and the residents
needed a break.

A dispersal notice was introduced last summer and the results
showed some dramatic changes. Youth-related calls to the police
dropped by 66 per cent, crime allegations by just over 35 per cent,
actual bodily harm by 66 per cent, and robbery by 60 per cent. Only
eight young people were taken home and referred to the local youth
offending team. None were arrested for breach of a notice.

But the statistics don’t tell the whole story. I saw how the area
felt different. Parks were packed and many more young people felt
safe to play outside. One elderly resident said she’d had the best
night’s sleep in years.

Clearly, the introduction of a dispersal notice won’t solve the
problems of crime and antisocial behaviour in the long-term. This
isn’t the intention of using it. What it does do though is give
immediate relief for residents.  

Camden already has a wide range of support and activities for young
people to address youth crime in the longer term, including the
youth offending team’s work to turn around existing offenders.
Youth inclusion and support panels ensure all agencies work
together to stop children drifting into criminality.

We have used dispersal notices only when necessary over the past
year. We’ve learnt as we go along, and taken on board concerns from
youth workers who thought the powers would interfere with their

Our message is clear. Youth workers play a crucial role in engaging
young people and encouraging them to build skills and move away
from crime. The dispersal notice has to work with them, not against
them. This can only be achieved with constant dialogue with the
police. That is why we’ve agreed that local officers who know the
areas and the people will patrol the zones.

We can’t solve all the problems of crime and antisocial behaviour
overnight. But, while we work together to address the causes of
crime, dispersal notices have proved a useful additional tool to
stop trouble before it starts. 

Anna Stewart is a Labour councillor and the executive
member for community safety at Camden Council.

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