POLICE and crime commissioner Katy Bourne faced tough questions on travellers when she was grilled by councillors on Thursday.
The Sussex commissioner defended an improving and ‘robust’ police stance on traveller encampments across Adur and Worthing at the Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee at Worthing Town Hall.
While accepting the response to some isolated incidents may have fallen short, Mrs Bourne said plans to open a legal transit site in Chichester would give police more powers to move travellers on in future.
She said: “My personal opinion is the police have really strong powers. Section 61 allows them to direct travellers off the site and Section 62 to move them to a transit site.
“If they don’t go, they have to leave the district for three months. That is a powerful piece of legislation if you are a traveller.”
Councillors highlighted several recent encampments, including ones at Goring, Southwick Green and Shoreham Beach, in which the public had been ‘frustrated’ at the police response.
Shoreham councillor Liza McKinney said: “Travellers arrived on Beach Green. They broke in. If I broke in I am sure I would be in the pokey in no time at all.
“Police turned up and spoke to the travellers and tried to persuade them to leave, so one of the travellers promptly urinated standing right next to the policeman with the kids and the parents all there, and the policemen frankly didn’t do a thing about it and just drove off.
“Now how about that - what does that tell the public? I was appalled.”
Mrs Bourne said she could not comment on specific incidents but was happier with the way police now dealt with the issue, compared to when she took office.
Adur and Worthing chief inspector Jo Banks added police had already met with councillors and the community to discuss the incident, with hindsight a ‘lovely thing’.
Mrs Bourne accepted the encampment at Southwick Green, in which travellers were not moved on for three days, ‘fell short’ of what she expected.
But she believed police had a better grasp of the issue than when she took office three years ago.
She explained the difficulties of taking legal action against travellers, who were ‘well resourced’ to fight any unjust actions.
“The travellers are very savvy and very well resourced,” she said.
“They have human rights lawyers far more expensive than anything we can afford and the day we put in section 61 that has a chink and they win in court it will be open season.”
Adur and Worthing councils director for communities John Mitchell told councillors the issue was a learning curve.
He accepted a community event in Broadwater should not have been cancelled last year, allowing the travellers to stay on site.
The transit site at Chichester is a multi-council initiative, which will give police powers to move unlawful encampments to the site.
A similar site in East Sussex has dramatically cut incidents.
It is on course to open in April at Westhampnett.