Police want spy planes to patrol troubled estates
Adam Lusher / London Telegraph | October 15 2006
Police chiefs are considering using unmanned surveillance drones to hover over problem estates as part of plans for Britain's first "yob squad" to tackle anti-social behaviour.
Merseyside Police's new Anti-Social Behaviour Task Force, already known locally as "the yob squad", will have an annual budget of £1 million, and a staff of 137 drawn from the fire service as well as the police. Its leader is promising to bring an "Al Capone approach" to anti-social behaviour, using "any lawful means necessary". Task force leaders are in discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority about the feasibility of sending surveillance drones to hover over problem estates.
Supt John Myles, the joint head of the task force, said: "It's a cheap way of doing aerial surveillance, it's a cheap way of doing intelligence and evidence gathering. Put over an anti-social behaviour hot-spot, it is quite a significant percentage cheaper than the force helicopter."
He added: "There may be some hurdles. The Civil Aviation Authority may say that it is a no-no, but I don't think it is at the moment." Earlier this year, police in the United States began using unmanned surveillance drones as a crime-fighting tool. In April, the remote-controlled planes, circling at 250ft and travelling at 30mph, monitored a large gathering of bikers in Charles County, Maryland. Police in Los Angeles have also been testing drones, which cost about £16,000 each.
The Merseyside unit will have its own intelligence, sniffer dog and mounted police units, and will be able to call on covert surveillance, specialist metal detectors and number plate recognition technology.
Supt Myles said: "It's bringing a war to those people causing misery. It is the Al Capone approach — by any lawful means. If you can do it for serious crime, why not for anti-social behaviour, which also seriously affects people?"
Group manager Chris Case, of Merseyside Fire Service, commanding the task force with Supt Myles, added: "Having a surveillance drone overhead would get them thinking: 'These people are serious'."
The task force is being launched in an area plagued by anti-social behaviour.
Earlier this month, a 60-year-old grandmother had to flee her Liverpool home when it was surrounded by a baying mob after she was identified as a witness in attempts to serve Asbos on a group of youths.
The incident left Merseyside Police denying councillors' suggestions of "no-go areas", and insisting its anti-social behaviour problems are no worse than in other cities.
The new task force is one of the most radical yet of a blizzard of local and central government anti-social behaviour initiatives.
These have included joint council and police anti-social behaviour units, and the Government's Anti-Social Behaviour Task Force, currently implementing the "Respect" agenda launched in January by Tony Blair.
Merseyside Police says the task force will advance efforts because it is the first squad dealing solely with anti-social behaviour.
Unlike anti-social behaviour units, it will not be confined to civil measures such as evictions and Asbos, but will also secure arrests and criminal -convictions.
The firefighters will boost the squad's effectiveness against offences such as illegal firework sales and arson.
The squad will soon move into headquarters in Liverpool, and is expected to be at full strength in about five weeks. Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe, the head of Merseyside Police Force, said tactics would include moving in force into selected "hot spots", sometimes deploying up to 50 officers around a single park or similar area.
"It is total war on crime. The first thing is to take the ground and hold it. You need to disrupt the bad behaviour and create a period of normality."
The squad could then send in its architectural liaison officer or "anti-social behaviour advocates" to look at long-term solutions. These could range from sports activities diverting youths from anti-social behaviour, to installing gates to stop drug addicts sneaking into alleyways. Just how difficult "holding the ground" might prove, however, was demonstrated on a trip to survey possible hot spots with forward elements of the "yob squad".
In Bark Road, Sefton, once pretty terrace houses stood empty, their broken windows guarded by metal shutters. The shutters' charred, black edges showed where rubbish festering in derelict front gardens had been set ablaze.
Youths in hooded tops spotted the officers' fluorescent jackets and jeered at being "harassed by the yellow fellahs".
The graffiti scrawled into the surface of the road, suggested a situation as atrocious as the spelling: "Bay Root" (Beirut).
"They had the bomb disposal squad down here a few months ago," said Karen Hughes, one of the squad's arson reduction advocates. "Someone had left a nail bomb outside someone's door."
"Wizzy", 17, grinned as he admitted he didn't rate the new squad's chances.
"It's a waste of time. Everyone round here loves getting chased by the police. The only way to stop it is having someone in the road all day."
In the Anti-Social Behaviour Task Force, however, the optimism seemed unshakeable. Insp Karen Dunn said: "It's the first time we in the police and fire services have joined together into one unit. I'm very excited."
Chief Constable Hogan-Howe was more guarded, but equally determined. "What we are not going to try is defeatism, doing nothing. At the very least, people in these areas will see that they are not ignored. It is worth trying."
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