Croydon has more areas where police can use special powers to break up groups than any other borough in London, new research reveals.
A map released by civil liberties group the Manifesto Club shows Croydon has 8 of London’s 32 ‘dispersal zones’, or 25% – twice as many as neighbouring Merton, which had the second highest number.
The zones allow police to disperse groups of more than two people if they are likely to cause locals distress, alarm or harassment – and eject them for 24 hours if they do not live within the zone. Re-entering a dispersal zone within 24 hours can be a criminal offence.
Josie Appleton, the Manifesto Club’s director, told EastLondonLines that the zones meant people’s effective rights differed from borough to borough.
She said: “Police forces apply the law very differently, so it’s a kind of postcode criminal justice lottery. You’ve got very different rights in different parts of the city according to the whim of local authorities and the police force.
“You could just be having a chat, or homeless and sitting on a bench – often members of the public call up and complain about that and say they find it offensive. The power’s drawn so widely that it can be used against almost anybody before they’ve done anything wrong.”
Dispersal zones were in place in Croydon town centre, Broad Green, Addiscombe, New Addington, Upper Norwood, Thornton Heath, Imperial Way and Spa Hill.
Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lewisham had no dispersal zones but were subject to borough-wide alcohol confiscation orders.
A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which campaigns against poverty in the UK, said that for communities the orders can “provide short-term relief” and “galvanise local activity,” allowing space to develop proper long-term solutions.
It said: “Enforced alone, dispersal orders constitute a ‘sticking plaster’ over local problems of order that affords a degree of localised respite but invariably fails to address the wider causes of perceived anti-social behaviour.”
But the report also warned: “Dispersal orders potentially criminalise youthful behaviour on the basis of the anxieties that young people congregating in groups may generate among other people.”
A spokesperson for Croydon council said: “Croydon has found this power to be an extremely useful tool in tackling anti-social behaviour. The council has developed an effective process whereby dispersal zones are part of a package to tackle a range of issues.”
The council said many zones were only in place for three to six months, until anti-social behaviour had ceased, and noted that Croydon is also the largest London borough by population.
Stuart Collins, Labour councillor for Broad Green ward, where a dispersal zone was in place, said it was used mostly to prevent groups of drinkers from local bars and nightclubs from disturbing shoppers on the local high street.
Collins said: “When the bars are open and when the pubs are open there’s a lot of people spilling out with drinks in their hands and dropping glass all over the place. If you’re a family it’s not particularly pleasant.”
“For those people who don’t want to be pestered by drunks or whatever it’s a good solution. Police will choose the zones where they’ve seen the most incidents occurring.”
He said local police had received intensive training to avoid the powers being used disproportionately against minorities or other social groups but that councillors remained “mindful” of the danger.
Appleton, however, believes the zones indicate a broader trend of criminalising rudeness and misdemeanor.
She said there were already laws that could deal with acts of public disorder and indecency and that dispersal zones gave police too much power to move groups along at their discretion.