By Paul Lewis | The police surveillance team had spotted their target: a 12-year-old boy with freckles and ginger hair. He was known to police for nuisance behaviour. They watched as he walked along a path with friends in the distance, before disappearing down a side street.
When the four boys emerged from the estate’s maze of alleyways, the patrol car was waiting. “Is this that operation, sir?” said one boy. “I don’t want to be on camera.” He already was.
Operation Leopard is the latest weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour to receive government backing. Pioneered by officers in Essex policing difficult estates, it deploys forward intelligence teams (FITs) – units trained to gather evidence at foxhunts, protests and football matches – in areas suffering from crime.
FIT officers target a hit list of individuals who are “known to police”, and subject them to repeated surveillance. Last week the Guardian was given unprecedented access to the latest operation on the Five Links estate in Laindon, near Basildon.
For civil rights groups, the operation is an Orwellian technique that persecutes individuals who have committed no crime. But for police, the “in your face” approach works and, unlike covert surveillance, it requires no special authorisation.
Essex police claim there has been a “100%” drop in crime on target estates during recent operations. Their surveys indicate the so-called “harass a youth” strategy is popular in the community.
Before the previous Operation Leopard, 27.8% of residents on the estate told police they had recently witnessed crime or antisocial behaviour. In the weeks after the operation, that dropped to 8.5%.
Home Office support for the tactic comes as confidence in asbos once the government’s flagship tool for combating antisocial behaviour has disintegrated. Earlier this month the government released figures to show use of the orders had dropped by 34%.
In a speech this month widely received as marking the decline of the asbo, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, singled out the Essex force’s initiative for praise. “Operation Leopard is exactly the sort of intensive policing that can bring persistent offenders to their senses,” she said. “It creates an environment where those responsible for antisocial behaviour have no room for manoeuvre and nowhere to hide, where the tables are turned on offenders so that those who harass our communities are themselves harried and harassed.”
Essex police, who have scheduled 12 more operations this year, have since been approached by police forces across Britain for information on their techniques.
Last week’s three-day operation began with officers hunched over laminated mugshots of 14 “targets” on the Five Links estate. Sergeant Simon Mathias, in charge of neighbourhood policing, briefed two community support officers, two special constables and a team of FIT officers on the individuals he had identified as troublemakers. All were male, and most were under 18. One was just 11. Between them they had convictions for robbery, battery, criminal damage and carrying weapons.
Mathias explained that officers would work in shifts, roaming the estate in search of the targets. Occasionally, he said, they should visit the targets’ homes. Officers were instructed to film “any individuals” seen associating with them. All footage would be kept for “evidence and intelligence” purposes. “We’re going to be more proactive, more intrusive,” said Mathias. “But it’s going to all be in the public domain, and all in the interests of preventing crime and antisocial behaviour.”
Nicknamed Alcatraz because of its fortress-like appearance, the Five Links estate has high levels of crime. It is also notoriously hard to police when confronted, suspects easily melt into a web of backstreets that police call “the rat run”.
During the first afternoon, two youths were reported on the roof of a school and, after a chase, were caught. They were in a group filmed earlier in the day for associating with a target. “It shows that we’re stopping the right people,” said Mathias.
Although officers claimed targets could choose not to be filmed, none of those stopped in the presence of the Guardian around 15 suspects and associates were given that choice.
“It winds me up. I can’t go nowhere without them following me,” said Michael, 18, after what he said was his fourth stop. “I got back from work and as soon as I got out the van they were just taking photos of me straight away zooming in on all the patterns I’ve got in my hair.”
Michael’s mother complained to police that he was being harassed. “You can understand the parents,” an FIT officer remarked later. “But, you know: tough. You won’t control them we will.”
By the third day the group actively began to evade police. They spent time indoors, playing computer games, or ventured off the estate on to a nearby patch of grass to play football. Some lifted their hoods every time they saw a patrol car.
Lee, 19, said he had been stigmatised. “I admit I was a little shit back in the past, but who ain’t?” he said. “I’ve grown up now I’m chilled these days. The old bill don’t let us move on. They keep on classing us as criminals.”
For civil rights groups, which have complained about Operation Leopard, this is precisely the problem. Some activists have launched a counterattack, subjecting FIT officers to surveillance. Turning their own cameras on FIT, activists have started posting officers’ names, faces and badge numbers online.
Back at the station, the officers logged on to one of the websites, Fitwatch, and vented their frustration at “revenge attacks”. One said being filmed felt “unnerving”.
During patrols the adversarial nature of what one FIT officer called “the hunt” was on show. Some officers developed derogatory nicknames for the teenagers they were stopping. But when talking to their teenage targets, the officers strove to build a rapport. They joked about the situation, and told the teenagers to rest assured they had done “nothing wrong”.
Sergeant Gavin Brook, who helped devise Operation Leopard in January, was the only FIT officer who agreed to be named. He acknowledged there were civil liberty implications, but added: “You have to weigh up causing a bit of annoyance to 12 or 14 youths, against the 2,000 or 3,000 residents whose lives have been improved.”
Many Five Links residents backed Brook’s argument, saying any initiative that put large numbers of police on the street would deter nuisance behaviour. But others, particularly long-time residents, were sceptical about it working when the cameras were off, or felt the method would make teenagers more hostile.