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ASBOs no substitute for effective policing

norman dennis, 22 October 2004

Crime and anti-social behaviour are amongst the most serious problems we face. Quite apart from the financial costs of vandalism and rowydism, the inability of the forces of law and order to guarantee to law-abiding citizens the right to go about their business without let or hindrance is blighting thousands of lives. If people are too afraid to go out of their houses, or to visit public places like shops or parks, they are suffering a real diminution of their quality of life.
The government’s response to this has been the creation of the ASBO – the anti-social behaviour order. So confident are they of its effectiveness that much has recently been made of a programme to increase the number of ASBOs issued. However, there is little reason for this confidence.

As a means of containing and preventing anti-social behaviour, ASBOs are of very limited use. First of all, local authorities have not been willing to issue very many of them, in spite of promptings from above. This is partly because the people affected by yobbish behaviour are often too terrified to give evidence which could lead to them being attacked. Secondly, when issued they are not always effective because there are not the resources to make sure they are observed, and in any case, our criminal justice system is seriously skewed towards giving everyone umpteen chances, rather than enforcing threatened penalties.
The fact is, ASBOs just illustrate the tendency of politicians to make up new laws and procedures to conceal the fact that they are presiding over systems that don’t work, but could work if some real effort were put into solving the problem. The sort of behaviour covered by ASBOs is already covered by the criminal law. Threatening behaviour is an offense. So is being drunk and disorderly in public. So is racial abuse. So is vandalism. The police have all the powers they need to deal with this sort of behaviour as soon as it manifests itself, and long before it becomes an established pattern in an area. They don’t do it because we have abandoned the idea of low-level community policing, nipping in the bud the sort of behaviour that will almost inevitably develop into serious crime.
Today’s Daily Mail reports on a family who have terrorised not only their neighbours but also – incredibly – the police. An ASBO has been taken out against mother, father and three sons, banning them from associating even with each other, and banning them from going into the police station. This is because their behaviour is so threatening to the police that one of the sons threatened to kill a policeman who was questioning him about burglaries. Surely these are the very people who should be in the police station – preferably in the cells. If the police are too scared to tackle them, does anyone really think that the unfortunate officers of the local authority, charged with enforcing ASBOs, will be able to do it?
We need more policeman, on the beat, enforcing the full panoply of laws that we have on the statute book. We don’t need any more PR-orientated initiatives from the Home Office designed to make us think that crime is at ‘historically low levels’.

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