On 1st May the Metropolitan Police confirmed that a three month dispersal zone had begun in the Stratford area, which “will specifically cover Stratford Town Centre, including the Magistrates’ Court, the main transport hubs in Stratford and the areas along West Ham Lane commonly known as the West Quadrant”.
Powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 to move on groups of people congregating in the zone began on 27 April, exactly three months before the Olympics opening ceremony. The police rather coyly add that at the end of the current period, they will “review the intelligence gathered and will consider making application to Newham Council for a three month extension”, but it is pretty obvious that an extension will happen automatically. Coupled with confirmation that “local residents and businesses will also notice a marked increase in police patrols” supported by the Met’s specialist public order unit CO20 (the Territorial Support Group) and Newham council enforcement officers, this is clearly a clean-up operation in advance of the summer’s Games.
So what does a dispersal zone involve in practice? Section 30 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act says that police officer or Police Community Support Officer has the power to order a group of two or more people to leave the area and, if they don’t live within it, to ban them from returning for up to 24 hours. Refusing to comply with an officer’s direction or not following the rules of the dispersal order can lead to arrest and charge, with a conviction potentially leading to a maximum penalty of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of £5000.
In addition, officers have ‘curfew’ powers: young people aged under 16 are effectively prohibited from public spaces within the dispersal zone overnight, from 9pm to 6am, unless they are accompanied by a parent or a responsible adult over 18 years of age. An officer has the power to remove anyone within this age group that they find during these hours to their place of residence, unless there are “reasonable grounds for believing that the person would, if removed to that place, be likely to suffer significant harm.”
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRT) has shown that dispersal orders can have an impact on levels of crime and anti-social behaviour within a designated zone, although they risk displacing crime to the immediately surrounding neighbourhoods. Dispersal powers do, however, tend to have the impact of stigmatising all young people as potential perpetrators of anti-social behaviour, although they are most likely to be its victims:
Dispersal orders potentially criminalise youthful behaviour on the basis of the anxieties that young people congregating in groups may generate among other people. As such, the power is potentially less concerned with the agency of individuals than the assumptions that are made about what they might do.
For many, meeting friends and peers in local public spaces constitutes a fundamental aspect of developing their sense of identity and control, as well as providing space in which to forge their independent capacity to manage risk and danger.
With the Olympics fast approaching, the underlying fear of young people from Newham scaring visitors and upsetting the drive for the ‘perfect Games’ does seem like the major motivation for creating a dispersal zone this early. It is as much about sending what JRT describes as a ‘symbolic message’ – mainly to stay away from public spaces in Stratford. The reality, though, is that this message is unlikely to succeed – many young (and not so young) people are are likely to head towards the area after 27 July, whether they have tickets for Olympic events or not, out of curiosity and excitement generated by the relentless publicity for the Games if nothing else.
However, when coupled with other stop & search and anti-terrorism powers and the huge number of police and private security around Newham over the summer, the dispersal zone is clearly seen by the Met as an important element in the expected lockdown of Stratford for the duration of the Olympics – one that could lead many young people to unexpectedly find themselves in court if they don’t fully understand their rights.