Corroborating accounts of threatening and abusive behaviour
The Noise App empowered neighbours to gather recordings of threatening and abusive behaviour by an individual with a chaotic lifestyle and mental health issues.
Leading a team comprising a senior environmental health officer and three technical officers, the environmental protection service manager had to adapt to the challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019/20, the council received approx 800 noise complaints but in the first six months of 2020/21, over 900 complaints were registered. The council started using The Noise App in April 2020, prompted in part by changes to service delivery arrangements, with staff needing to work and manage cases remotely.
The out-of-hours noise service was suspended, and with flexible working, new modes of operation were needed. Early benefits from using The Noise App were quickly identified, including in the triaging of complaints and gathering of evidence in connection with allegations of anti-social behaviour. However, dealing with individuals who live chaotic lives or have underlying mental health problems can be difficult. Statutory nuisance powers were not intended to deal with such matters; and so, other pragmatic approaches are, on occasions, needed.
“In court, the status of the TNA [The Noise App] recordings was not questioned or challenged, and the content had a profound impact on the magistrates.”
John Smith - Blackpool Council
Since problematic behaviour is often a compounding factor in cases where noise is a feature, Blackpool’s environmental protection service has adopted an approach whereby greater reliance is placed on the use of ASB powers. As a result of selecting early interventions to challenge anti-social behaviour (the use of community protection warnings and notices in particular), there are significantly fewer occasions when statutory nuisance provisions need to be considered. The Noise App has assisted with this approach.
In one case, the team started to receive complaints from several people who were being disturbed by an individual playing rave music at excessively loud levels. This individual would also shout in a random and abusive manner at neighbours and passers-by during the day and night. The rants were offensive, threatening and racist, and it transpired that the perpetrator, recently released from prison, had mental health issues. The property where he resided had been converted into holiday apartments and was situated in a street comprising well-managed hotels, guest houses and residential properties.
The complainants were invited to submit noise recordings taken with The Noise App, and over 240 records were sent through to the team. In the main they were taken from the garden of the property immediately next door and from inside another nearby house. The recordings captured the music and verbal comments with sufficient clarity to enable them to be heard and understood by the officer listening to the recordings. She was satisfied that whilst the level of the noise was an issue, the key factor was what the individual was saying, combined with the number of people affected by it.
She was satisfied that the outbursts were sufficiently serious to give rise to harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons.Enquiries and further complaints revealed that there were serious concerns in the wider community, to such an extent that six other residents came forward as witnesses and evidence was also provided by two police officers.
The service manager decided that anti-social behaviour provisions should be applied to tackle the problems as the underlying issue was more than just noise disturbance from loud music. A community protection warning was served on the perpetrator but ignored. Consequently, a community protection notice was served but breached on numerous occasions. A court file was prepared and formal proceedings initiated.
In preparing the case file, a spreadsheet was created, detailing the date and time of each recording made on The Noise App. For each recording, the observational comments made by the victim (the app user) were reproduced, along with a transcript of the words used by the perpetrator as they were recorded with the app.
By way of introduction of The Noise App data as evidence, the officer included in her witness statement that ‘The Noise App is an app where noise can be recorded using a mobile phone and downloaded so that (EP) officers can listen to the recordings, this is in an electronic format’. She went on to confirm that she had listened to specific recordings, identified them as exhibits and was able to give a professional opinion in relation to their significance and potential impact. The witness statements also made reference to The Noise App recordings that were being used as exhibits.
In court, the status of the TNA recordings was not questioned or challenged, but their content had a profound impact on the magistrates. Three examples of the worst and clearest swearing and racist abuse were played to the court, along with recordings of the rave music. The magistrates were able to track the words being shouted by the perpetrator to those detailed in the spreadsheet.
The case was proven and a closure order secured. The offensive behaviour of the perpetrator continued, which resulted in a further application to court for a criminal behaviour order. However, prior to the matter returning to court, the perpetrator was arrested by the police for other serious offences that resulted in a further custodial sentence. As a result, the case was closed.
In the experience of the team at Blackpool Council, the majority of noise problems can be attributed to behavioural issues. Strong links have been developed with Lancashire Constabulary, and a number of collaborative initiatives are being trialed. One already recognised as a success is evening and night-time patrols, where members of the environmental protection services will, after receiving a justified noise complaint via The Noise App, visit the offending premises and issue community protection warnings on the spot.
This has an immediate impact, and the fact that police officers are on hand and are supporting this approach gives it increased impetus. In situations where problems persist, the community protection notice provisions are utilised. The positive results from this approach have given the team confidence to use the ASB provisions more widely and creatively. The statutory nuisance provisions are still relevant; but for addressing the problems arising from an individual’s behaviour, ASB interventions are considered a smarter approach, delivering quicker results and a better longer-term resolution.
The Noise App enables the real-time recording of events to be made. If then presented as a timeline, with the impact of incidents also charted, these recordings provide a powerful portrayal of what victims are enduring.
Relying upon recordings captured with The Noise App in court proceedings presents no issues, providing these recordings are introduced appropriately.
It is important to ensure consistency between details documented in witness statements and referenced exhibits.
Recordings can help to identify when unreasonable behaviour is a significant contributory factor, allowing enforcement officers to focus and target remedial measures.
The use of anti-social behaviour powers should be viewed as additional (but very useful) resolution tools. Familiarise yourself with them and don’t be afraid to have a go!
Actively using enforcement interventions can boost the confidence of officers and strengthen relationships with partner organisations.