In January this year, the anti-social behaviour (ASB) team at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets made legal history when its nervous star witness in a ‘neighbour from hell’ case was permitted to give evidence via a videolink.
No longer the stuff of late-night TV dramas such as Shameless, tackling yobbish behaviour has become an everyday reality for local authorities.
Behind the government’s high-profile ‘Respect’ agenda is a growing army of specialist officers using a range of civil remedies such as anti-social behaviour orders – or Asbos – to turn the tide against drugs, vandalism, arson and graffiti.
Part-social worker, part-police officer, the expectations of these non-uniformed staff – whose backgrounds range from covert surveillance to victim support – are posing significant recruitment and retention challenges for the UK’s local authorities.
“If you are looking for a new finance officer, it is relatively easy to dip into a pool of people with the right skills and experience,” explains Sophie Thorley, community safety partnership manager at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council.
“When it comes to finding someone to take on anti-social behaviour work, there are very few people who can just be plucked off the shelf. It’s a new post that is evolving all the time and one that can be hard to fill.”
The size of the ASB workforce is impossible to pin down because officers – whose average salary range is between £22,000 and £26,000 – come in so many guises.
In Newcastle-under-Lyme, where there are two dedicated staff working alongside the police, they are termed ‘anti-social behaviour officers’, while Ribble Valley Borough Council in Lancashire uses the more lyrical ‘quality of life officer’.
In London, Tower Hamlets borough council has a team of eight ‘case investigation officers’ (CIOs), who handle a workload of around 1,500 incidents each year.
Along with the name, the interpretation of the job – which has evolved out of the ‘nuisance officer’ post once deployed by local authority housing departments – also varies widely.
Ealing Council, which has served 29 anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) since 1999, estimates that around 30 different individuals – representing the council’s education, legal, environmental and youth offending team, as well as the police and local health authority – have been involved in each one.
“Many people in Ealing would say that we have issued too many Asbos,” says a council spokesman. “But this is a last-ditch measure when all else fails.”
In Three Rivers, Hertfordshire, officers wait for members of the public to report drug misuse or abusive teenagers, while in Croydon the work is far more front-line.
Darren Kidson, Croydon’s community protection manager, says there is never a dull moment in the role. “The job of an ASB officer ranges from kicking in a drug dealer’s door at 3am to tackling noise nuisance in a skateboard park at tea-time.
“We expect officers to close down crack houses, do nine hours of surveillance work in the back of a transit van, and then address the local school assembly or get involved in a tall hedge dispute,” he says.
Back at Tower Hamlets, drug abuse tops the anti-social behaviour agenda. Former lawyer Evert Robotham manages a team of eight CIOs within a 45-strong ASB unit.
“In this part of London, the problem of racial abuse and harassment has been superseded by drug crime, and that is where many of our resources are directed,” he says.
Since March 2005, Tower Hamlets has issued 57 Asbos and 60 acceptable behaviour contracts, known as ABCs – voluntary agreements made between people involved in anti-social behaviour and the local police, school, housing departments etc.
Lack of qualifications
Despite the growing pressures of the job, however, ASB officers have no formal career progression in the form of recognised training or qualifications, and there is no official benchmark for good practice.
Kidson says: “Some ASB officers may have excellent surveillance skills from working with benefit fraud, but they may not have a clue about whether you can light a bonfire in the park. It’s virtually impossible to find one person with all that is needed.”
He concludes that tackling anti-social behaviour in communities takes a strong set of individuals. “It’s up to local authority HR departments to help build those teams,” he says.
What is an Asbo?
Behaviour is considered ‘anti-social’ if it causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm and distress. This includes threatening or drunken behaviour, racial abuse and arson.
An anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) may require the individual to stay away from a particular housing estate or shopping precinct, obey a late-night curfew or no-drinking zone, or even give up carrying matches.
They are in force for a minimum of two years, but some people have been under them for as long as five.
While Asbos are civil remedies, breaches of them are a criminal matter, and may lead to a fine and jail sentence. Crasbos are Asbos issued as part of a criminal conviction.
By the end of 2005, more than 6,500 Asbos had been issued by magistrates courts – 43% of them against juveniles.
Anti-social behaviour officer: What the job involves
- Packed with paperwork and meetings, an anti-social behaviour officer’s role involves sharing information between council departments and the police.
- Building up a case against an arsonist or drug dealer involves painstaking work and unsociable hours, and the publicity attached to Asbos can be daunting.
- Officers are expected to process a pre-determined number of Asbos or acceptable behaviour contracts. The figure continues to rise each year.
“I was attacked, bitten and kicked in my previous job in a social care day centre, so you could say I’m used to a certain level of threat,” says 25-year-old business studies graduate Evelyn Glasgow, who works as an ASB officer for Three Rivers District Council in Hertfordshire.
“You need the patience of a saint to get through all the paperwork, and good communication skills to help explain to offenders how the various legal processes work. You also have to tell senior council members why you have taken particular steps,” she says.
“I do feel some sympathy for the disadvantaged youngsters who repeatedly get into trouble,” she adds. “But I have also found that some very fortunate people can be really anti-social.”