First Person: How an American in London Learned to Fear the ASBO

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LONDON — Dogs cannot safely bark in this city.

This troubling piece of information first came to my attention after I read an article in The Times of London that ran under the headline “Dogs That Bark at Strangers Could Face Canine ASBO.”

I was a newcomer to the city at the time and had no idea what an ASBO was. But it sounded bad.

The article was accompanied by a fearsome image of a Cujo-like creature, his head tilted as if in midroar. The first paragraph warned: “Dog owners who let their animals growl at strangers or bark in gardens could be ordered to control their pets or face fines” — of roughly $4,000 at the time — “under new laws coming into force on Monday.”

As the owner of a lightly trained golden retriever, I was concerned.

The article never explained what ASBO was, since only an American expat like myself would have to ask. I learned that it stood for “antisocial behavior order,” and it had come in with Tony Blair’s Labour government in the late 1990s.

While ASBOs were officially renamed in England and Wales in 2014, the term has lived on, particularly in tabloid headlines, to refer to actions governed by the Antisocial Behavior, Crime and Policing Act. Expanded and streamlined as part of these recent changes, it is aimed at preventing people over 10 years of age, and their pets, from behaving badly.

There is something particularly British about it, coming from a society that likes to throw back a pint but also to keep things orderly and proper. The act has civil and criminal elements but is often exercised as a threat. Warning letters hold up the possibility of an ASBO, or, as the civil version is now technically called, an injunction.

Over time, the term ASBO took on a grammatical life of its own. ASBO can be a noun, as in “Stop being an ASBO.” It can appear as an adjective, with one woman on Twitter describing her dog as “slightly ASBO-ish.” It even comes in gerund form: “My crazy neighbors need ASBO-ing so bad,” another Twitter commenter wrote.

The tabloids called a family of marauding swans in Cambridge “Mr. Asbo” (the grandfather), “Asboy” (the son) and “Asbaby” (the grandson).

The Daily Mail has referred to a “moaning wife” as “Nagsbo.” Martin Amis titled his 2012 novel “Lionel Asbo.”

“If you’re young and a bit mouthy, you would get an ASBO,” said Davide Wheller, an editor of a London-based fashion and music magazine called ASBO. “It’s a term that’s used against young people. It brands a certain class that gets the ASBO, so we’ve taken this word and turned it on its head.”

That’s not to say social behavior injunctions are aimed only at the young.

Actions that fall under the antisocial behavior act have run the gamut. There was the hotelier in Blackpool who received a warning letter early this year after renaming his bed-and-breakfast the Viagra Hotel. Before that, a couple in Hampshire were fined more than $2,600 because their bichon frisés barked 150 times in 51 minutes. The Mirror reported on an ASBO-prone cat named Rocky. A farmer got an ASBO for his unruly pigs.

“I think it’s misused,” said Anne Maple, 62, who is sort of a celebrity among the London tabloids. She said in an interview that she has received 11 warning letters from her landlord, Lewisham Homes, the company that manages public housing for her local council.

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The letters have included warnings about the condition of a fence on her property and the amount of cat feces in her trash bins. She says the threats have come in retaliation for her own complaints about the management company, which did not respond to a request for comment.

“The people it was intended for, like kids graffiti-ing up a wall, they just turned it around, and they wear the ASBO like a badge,” she said. “They actually call me Granny ASBO! The local kids do, ever so nicely. They say, ‘You’re one of us now, Gran.’”

A favorite ASBO-receiving subtype are those who are vocal during sex. An amorous Newcastle couple was reportedly cited twice, even after they had moved their bed into their dining room. Neighbors had claimed they “were watching television when they were disturbed” after “they heard screaming from the defendant next door,” according to The Telegraph. The presiding judge reportedly told the offenders, “You have made your neighbors’ lives thoroughly miserable.”

Far more disturbing is the classic rock ASBO that befell grandparents in the suburbs of Plymouth, who were written up for playing Fleetwood Mac and Roy Orbison too loudly in their garden.

This seemed a bridge too far. I also enjoy Fleetwood Mac. Who among us hasn’t done something that could have earned an ASBO at one time or another?

This would never fly back home, I thought. Then I talked to Craig Johnstone, a principal lecturer in criminology at the University of Brighton.

“The Blair government was seduced by what was happening in New York, and what Bratton and Rudy Giuliani had been doing with broken windows,” he said, referring to the controversial strategy of aggressively policing minor offenses. Mr. Giuliani enacted the “broken windows” policy when he was mayor of New York with help from his police commissioner at the time, William J. Bratton.

“I think there was a little bit of ‘What could we do as a British broken windows?’” Mr. Johnstone added.

My real concern was parochial. If you read through the legislation, you find penalties for dogs “that people say are causing distress or threatening their cats.”

Ruh-roh. The postage-stamp-size yard behind our flat is a way station for cats, pigeons and foxes, and my golden retriever has been known to exercise his vocal cords.

By the letter of the law, you must keep your dog under control “anyplace in England or Wales (whether or not a public place).” Theoretically, I could get an injunction if my dog was causing distress in my own home.

I may as well turn myself in.