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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July, 2005, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Does dispersal mean order?
By Alison Freeman
BBC News, London

One of the many enclosed pathways on the estates
Alleyways are sealed off where possible
Upper and West Norwood are much like many parts of London.

Housing estates stand alongside privately owned Victorian and Edwardian homes and the people who live there come from a complete spectrum of backgrounds.

But according to the police gangs of youths have been making life there a misery for others.

From violent attacks on commuters near West Norwood station, to stealing mopeds and vandalism, police say groups of 'lads' who come into the area to commit crime are to blame.

Last year a man was shot dead near Gipsy Hill station.

Two of the area's home beat officers, Pcs Khi Price and Steve Christmas, say that when school kicks out at about 3pm, the number of robberies shoots up in the area, with youngsters mainly targeting each other.

Poor design

The officers know their patches, and the problems faced there, like the backs of their hands.

They welcome the Section 30 order which has turned the area into what is thought to be one of the biggest dispersal zones in London.

The zone, which covers the SE27 postcodes until early December, gives officers the right to move on groups of people as well as impose a 9pm curfew on under-16s out on the streets without an adult.

If people refuse to move, they can be arrested under the order which is part of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003.

The act was brought in by the government to help councils tackle persistent bad behaviour.

The distance between the zone's most easterly and westerly points is almost 3km (1.8 miles) and from north to south it measures about 1.5km (0.9 miles).

Both officers agree that poor design lends the estates in the area to crime.

Dispersal zone graphic

Much of the housing is at ground-level, in an attempt to offer a better quality of life than in high-rise blocks, but it means there are plenty of alleyways, making it easy for trouble-makers to disappear.

Few would argue that removing potential robbers or attackers is a bad move, but human rights group Liberty is concerned about officers being able to move someone on if they are considered to be acting in an intimidating way.

The officers get lots of complaints from householders who say groups shout abuse and deface their properties. By having the power to break up a gang police feel they can stop trouble before it starts.

But Liberty says that 'intimidation' can, in some cases, be more about people's perceptions than a real risk.

Alex Gask, from Liberty, said: "There is an assumption that young people as a group are likely to cause threat and distress than any other group.

Inspector Richard Hall
Inspector Hall wants to improve the area

"There are comparisons over racial issues as well and I have no doubt that certain people feel more threatened by a group of black youths than white youths.

"Police should only be able to move someone on if they've done something wrong."

Liberty is also concerned that, much like Stop and Search powers, dispersal orders will end up targeting those from ethnic minority groups.

Inspector Richard Hall took on the Norwood area 14 months ago and has worked with Lambeth Council to implement the order.

Mr Hall said: "One question people ask me is 'why is the zone so big?' The answer is, if it's any smaller it doesn't work. It simply moves the problem from one area to another.

I think the law should be wary - cracking down on those who have done nothing wrong is a dangerous route to take
Alex Gask, Liberty

He says there are fears the zone will move offenders on and admits it is a "quick fix", but adds that any youngsters who come to their attention will get help from Lambeth's education and social services.

Mr Hall also makes it clear that there was a long consultation process with local people before the zone could be put in place and it is just the start of his efforts to sort out the neglected and deprived area.

Measures to block off alleyways are already in place and the inspector talks of funding for improvements.

"But for me, one of the most important changes needs to be parents. Parents have to responsible for their children," Mr Hall said.

"At 12 at night I see children aged 11 or 12 roaming the streets.

'Lose respect'

"I have a nine-year-old son, and he wouldn't be allowed out at that time without an adult."

But Liberty say while they back the police in stopping crime the new powers do not sit comfortably with them.

Mr Gask said: "I think the law should be wary. Cracking down on those who have done nothing wrong is a dangerous route to take.

"Having worked with young people we find that these measures make them feel demonised for being young and they lose respect for authorities like the police."

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