A “joined-up plan with targets” to tackle the wave of crime and anti-social behaviour that is afflicting Brixton has been promised following a meeting of residents, senior police officers and Lambeth council officers and councillors.
More than 50 local people at the meeting in Lambeth town hall heard pledges that residents will be actively involved in drawing up the plan.
There will be also efforts to involve health and social services. Their participation is seen as vital given the large number of people with mental health and drug problems on Brixton’s streets.
The council is also working on an app that would allow much easier reporting of crime and anti-social behaviour.
Local MP Helen Hayes (Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood) who represents the eastern part of Brixton town centre, expressed the widely held view of local people when she said that “the issues that we are seeing with straightforward anti-social behaviour are the worst that I’ve ever known them”.
Peter Impey is chair of the Dalyell Area Residents’ Association, and organiser for and one of the founders of Action on ASB! (AoASB) which organised the town hall meeting. Trying to deal with anti-social behaviour in individual neighbourhoods is “like whack-a-mole,” he said. “You can hit it here and it pops up in another place.”
“Our mission is to unite the community – that’s everyone, businesses, residents, community organisations – to call for action from the police, council and relevant organisations to reduce anti-social behaviour in Brixton.
“And, importantly, it’s about making sure the community is involved in that process.”
Cllr Mahamed Hashi, Lambeth council cabinet member for safer communities, said the way residents are having to live “is completely wrong and unsustainable”.
He had been buying a doughnut in Brixton and witnessed a man walk in with a plastic bag, and “so casually, which is what was terrifying,” clear the whole shelf into the bag with no urgency.
The cashier had shouted at him, but he just walked out.
“For me, seeing that was terrifying,” said Cllr Hashi. “I have lived in the area since 1989. To see it like this is absolutely crazy.”
Cllr Hashi repeated and emphasised the appeals of police officers for members of the community to report crimes. “I know it feels really old fashioned way of doing things, but we have to have that data collected in that way,” he said.
“I want to be really realistic about the breadth of the challenge,” he said. “Last month we had five shootings and four stabbing in 10 days in Brixton. There had been the murder of Keelen Morris Wong and Ronaldo Scott within the period of a month.
“I’ve been a youth worker for 23 years and knew both the families and the young people,” said Cllr Hashi.
“It was the second anniversary of the murder of Chino Johnson in Angell Town. It was the year anniversary of the shooting of Chris Kaba.”
Cllr Hashi said: “We still are lacking resources. So the truth is there’s a wide range of problems and there’s a wide impact it’s having in the community.
“It’s really important that we get this right, get together the action plans and start holding ourselves to account around this.”
Superintendent Gabriel Cameron, who was also at the first AoASB public meeting at Papa’s Park in Brixton in September, was one of three senior police officers at the town hall meeting.
The others were chief inspector Ashlee Gomes and inspector Simon Blondell.
Superintendent Cameron said there had been an uplift in policing resources for Lambeth, which previously had just one inspector.
Now inspector Blondell was the dedicated inspector for the four wards of central Brixton.
Over the past four or five weeks, there had been “days of action” with a heavy police presence in Brixton. “Now I’m not saying that that’s going to change the world overnight, but it’s a start,” said superintendent Cameron.
New partnerships were being forged with South Western Railway, which runs the overground station, and British Transport Police, he said, “because it’s not just a Met police problem or issue, it’s all our problem.
“We’re creating new relationships and we are working towards a tactical plan with our local authority partners. “You will have seen that the local authority have also have put in wardens to support us. There’s been more of a cohesive approach, which I don’t think we had before.”
Superintendent Cameron pointed out that serious violent crime in Brixton also had to be dealt with, including recent horrific murders.
“We have eight of the top 50 gangs in Lambeth,” he said. Alongside anti-social behaviour, police were working on a strategy to disrupt the gangs.
He stressed the need to report crime and anti-social behaviour while acknowledging that it was almost accepted that there was no point in doing so.
He had done a walk-about in Brixton town centre with Cllr Hashi which had shocked him “I saw empty shelves in Body Shop and Boots and asked what was going on. ‘Oh yeah,’ came the reply, ‘people come, just take everything, put it in the bag’.”
But the last security guard that stopped somebody doing this had been sacked because he had his hands on the thief. “And that’s not Boots’ policy.”
Chief inspector Gomes said: “I walk from the Underground station to the police station every day.
“What I’ve observed is almost a perfect microcosm of everything that is wrong.
“You come out the Underground station and there are what I can best describe as encampments right outside the station.
“You’ve then got people begging. You’ve got people who quite clearly have mental health issues or addiction problems.”
Several speakers responded to repeated appeals to report every crime and incidence of anti-social behaviour by pointing out that it can take an hour or much more to do so.
“You can say whatever you’re going to say, but you’ve got to make this a lot more streamlined,” one told the police officers.
One woman said: “I’ve found myself when I’m walking through Brixton at times surrounded by people begging and almost be having to be rescued.”
On one occasion a chivalrous man had kept aggressive beggars out of her way.
Having spent 40 years in social services, she wholeheartedly agreed with the need to involve health and social services.
Part of the problem was that “psychiatric services have almost now gone”.
Ros Griffiths, chair of the Friends of Windrush Square, warned that there had to be “real discussions, not just dressed up discussion, about how we are going to go forward. If you want the community to go forward, they will bring their authentic self. Are we ready for all of that is the question.”
She said: “We have to think outside the box … because we’re at the tipping point.
“I’ve been around here long enough and seen all of this. When it reaches breaking point, the whole fabric breaks down and you’re going to see Brixton looking pretty ugly.”
“So let’s take note that if we are going to do this, we have to think quite radically in terms of coming up with a strategy that allows the community to be involved in a way that works for them.”
Other speakers pointed out that the council ignored people for months and, if they did respond, systemic problems emerged: “The housing people say speak to the ASB teams. The ASB teams say speak to housing or go to the police. No one at Lambeth is taking any responsibility of coming up with anything”.
One speaker told how council officers did not reply to multiple emails: “What you guys say in public and what you do behind the scenes don’t seem to match up,” he said. “You put on a good ‘doing stuff’ persona. But the reality is you are not doing anything”.
Another said: ““I can guarantee you – you make that communication line clear – you’ll be inundated with information. Most people don’t know the number to call. When they do call, they’re going be there for two hours just to report one thing. It’s ridiculous. You guys have got to get your stuff together. We’ll do our part.”
“One of the things that you need to recognise is the reason people don’t report isn’t just that they don’t know where to report to, or that it’s difficult to report, but also that nothing happens when you report,” said another speaker.
“I had my dog chase someone out of my house the other night. We didn’t report it, because over the years – and I’ve been here 25 years – things just don’t get done.
“I had someone attack my house with baseball bats a couple of years ago. Police closed the case without speaking [to me] and I had caught them on CCTV as well. If you want us to report, we have to see something.
“It can’t just be, well, if you don’t report, it’s your fault. We’ve been doing it for years. We’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century. We need to see some results. We need to know what to expect.”
Another said: “I’ve been here in Brixton since 1985 and I live in Tunstall Road [opposite the Tube station]. We’ve been round and round and round and round in circles with all of this.
“The streets are too dark. All the new lights that were put up do not work now.
“We had a meeting five years ago. And I’ve been reporting anti-social behaviour week after week after week, and the man came from the council and said, ‘well, this road’s not coming up as a hotspot’.
“So what do you do? How many times do we have to keep doing this? It’s great that everybody wants to work together and all the rest of it, but we’ve been campaigning within our residents’ group for the last five years and we’re still at the exactly the same point every Friday and Saturday night.
“It’s usually like a toilet. We’ve got people taking drugs, having sex against the window. I’m pretty broad-minded and I’ve seen probably everything, but we need something done. You can’t just keep talking about it.
“Over the last six months two friends of mine were attacked outside my house.
“It’s been reported again and again and again. And nothing’s been done. It’s so frustrating. I’ve sent email after email to the council, I haven’t even had a response. It’s just a confirmation letter and then nothing is done.”
A parishioner of St Matthew’s church said: “One of the drug dealers parks his car … across the road and does his deals and leaves – and we see him.
“A friend of mine who works in the civic centre has looked down and seen it happen as well. It’s not exactly hidden.
“There’s a guy who comes, bless him, to get his fix in his power-assisted wheelchair. I mean, talk about vulnerable.
“These people are not necessarily on the streets. They are in supported accommodation, but they’re not being supported. I think that’s another piece of the jigsaw, which we need to really bear in mind.
“In the council we have people who commission mental health and addiction services. I feel they should be much more involved here than they are.
“The mental health budget for Lambeth is around £70m a year. That’s not small. That’s massive. Absolutely massive. And I think we could do much better with it to be honest.”
A resident of Porden Road, behind Lambeth civic centre, said: “We have everyone taking canisters on our road because they want to get high before they go in [to a venue].
“People are on doorsteps taking drugs and they’re in suits – they’re not desperate people.
“There are people the night time economy brings and they’re bringing the drug dealers with them and drug dealers go around taxis.”
Another resident said: “My son’s just starting secondary school. I was petrified at the thought of him coming home on the bus. I should not feel like that, like actual trauma. It’s not OK.
“I’m texting him, where are you? Should I meet him at the alley? Because I don’t really want him to walk through the alley to get to our road.
“My children came home with a handout saying Safer Lambeth for Kids or something like that. And I just thought, is this a joke?”
Sean Biggart, Lambeth council’s head of public safety, said he went to school in and currently lives in the borough. “The issues that are dear to your hearts are dear to my own,” he said. “I’ve been in and around Brixton for a very long time. I’ve been with the authority for 20 years.”
The reason he got into his current role “is to make a difference,” he said.
The difficult challenge facing everyone can only be tackled by the community as a whole, he said.
Since the first meeting of AoASB! in Papa’s Park, council and police officers had put together “a specific action plan” that is in place, Sean Biggart said.
Since the first meeting, there had been 36 weapon sweeps which found 20 weapons as well as stashes of drugs, cash, phones.
“We undertake weapon sweeps with partners, the police, and the local community,” he said. “We also do it with the housing associations. We do it in parks, in open spaces. We do it in the town centre. We do it on the estates. I’d like all of you to be a part of that,” he told the meeting. “So we can show these people that we’re not going to stand for this type of behaviour any more and we are united in trying to eradicate these issues.”
Since August an officer tasked to lead on aggressive begging and rough sleeping has undertaken 51 patrols. “He’s removed eight encampments, five single structure tents, and served a community protection notice.”
For people that need support, “those very vulnerable people that are in the community”, said Sean Biggart, “we’re working with public health.” Wardens in the town centre would engage with those individuals and to try and give them the support that they need.
“We also working in partnership with the regulatory services to address the issues that happen in the night time economy.
“We also have a violence against women and girls team who have patrolled every single day since the beginning of the summer, and they’re in position until the end of March.
“I know sometimes reporting is not the easiest thing,” said Sean Biggart. “We’re working with partners from Commonplace which is an app where people can just literally log on, use the app, put in the information of what they’ve seen … and it will give us real time information as to what’s happening.
“It will also position us on a map so we can take that intelligence-led approach to tackling some of the challenges that we face.”
The Commonplace app is currently used by the council for people to report violence against women and girls. It is working with Commonplace to add ASB reporting in Lambeth.
To be kept up to date with the progress of the campaign, to learn more or to get involved, contact the organisers at AOASB@outlook.com