At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.
In this article, Jim Turner and Camilla Elphick discuss the potential for public-police conflict, and the need for mutual public-police trust and solidarity, in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. Jim Turner is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology and Camilla Elphick is a post-doctoral Research Associate in Psychology, both at The Open University.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the UK government has passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. Secondary legislation has also been introduced across the four nations of the UK in the form of Health Protection Regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These laws, which are intended to limit the spread and severity of the Covid-19 disease outbreak, represent a substantial curtailment of civil liberties, particularly the freedom of movement and the freedom of assembly. Although these are health protection laws, not public order laws, it nonetheless falls to the police (as well as certain other relevant authorities) to enforce them. There is also, as is often the case, a certain amount of ‘grey area’ in the new laws. In particular, the sections restricting freedom of movement state that people can only leave their homes if they have a ‘reasonable excuse’, with a list of examples of what count as reasonable excuses. This list, however, is non-exhaustive (the Regulations say that reasonable excuse ‘includes’ the listed activities, not that it is limited to them), meaning that it ultimately falls to the courts, and in the first instance the police, to decide what is ‘reasonable’. This has the potential to bring the police into direct conflict with the general population.
In the first few weeks of the new laws being in place, many such conflicts have occurred, often being reported in the media. Some of these conflicts were clear examples of police over-reach, such as the case of Marie Dinou, who was arrested, convicted in her absence in a magistrates court, and fined for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020. An appeal court later overturned this conviction, finding that Ms Dinou had been ‘incorrectly charged’ – effectively, Ms Dinou had been arrested and imprisoned by the police for two days for a crime that does not exist in law. Other, less serious, examples include a police officer telling a man in Rotherham that he could not be out in his front garden (despite Section 6 (3) of the Regulations covering England specifically stating that the garden is part of the home), the much-publicised decision by police to try to ban walkers from the Peak District (despite exercise being specifically permitted in the Regulations, with no restrictions given on which locations people can use for exercise), and even reports that officers were trying to stop the sale of ‘non-essential’ Easter eggs.
In other cases the police have acted much more within the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new laws. For example, while the Regulations say that exercise is a ‘reasonable excuse’ they do not say whether or not it is a ‘reasonable excuse’ to travel somewhere for exercise. Police forces have generally taken a fairly moderate view of this, considering short distance travel to be reasonable but taking the view that very long distance travel is unreasonable. It is, of course, important to note that some members of the general public have been breaching the new laws in ways that the police must act against in order to protect public health, such as holding house parties. It is also important to remember that conflicts between the police and the public go both ways, and there have been cases of officers being attacked for enforcing the new laws.
As the COVID-19 situation goes on, the need for the police to enforce these ‘social distancing’ restrictions will continue. This highlights a tension in the public-police relationship, which is that sometimes the public want the police’s involvement in their lives and sometimes they do not. To give an example: nobody likes to see the police in their rear-view mirror when they’re driving, but everybody wants to see the police arrive on scene after a major incident such as a terrorist attack. Despite the tone of much of the media coverage to date, it is not yet clear whether the COVID-19 restrictions on individual freedoms, and the police enforcement of those restrictions, is welcomed or resented by the general public overall. Concerns about the UK moving towards becoming a ‘police state’ have been raised since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, particularly in independent media (e.g. this article from before the new police powers were passed). Never have Peel’s (1929) nine principles of policing felt more relevant, as they propose a philosophy of policing derived from public cooperation with the police rather than fear or force.
Academic research has shown that there is a robust association between the public’s perception of the police as trustworthy and the public’s willingness to cooperate with the police. It has therefore always been in the general public interest for the police to fulfil their roles in a way that engenders trust among the public, but this has become urgent since the spread of COVID-19. Even in usual life, policing efforts can be hampered by things such as inequality, prejudice, or perceived lack of fairness and consistency. These factors can contribute to a lack of public trust in the police and a reluctance to collaborate or cooperate with them. In the current situation, these factors can be seen in issues such as the over-representation of ethnic minority groups in Covid-19 cases, prejudice against ethnic groups (e.g. some racist attacks have been linked to the outbreak), and a lack of clarity in the Regulations (as noted above). Given this context, the difficulties that the police face in enforcing the restrictions might well be amplified.
One way to foster trust is to build shared identities between police and citizens, as this can increase social solidarity between them and encourage citizens to cooperate. Such a shared identity may assist the police in their efforts to keep citizens safe during this time of social distancing. Indeed, this sense of social solidarity is built into Peel’s nine principles of policing: the seventh principle includes the concept ‘that the police are the public and that the public are the police’. This principle does, of course, require both the police and the public to uphold it – and, in a difficult time like this, it could get strained.
How the police have responded
The College of Policing, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, have issued guidance to police forces on what they should and should not consider to be a ‘reasonable excuse’ when enforcing the new laws. These guidelines are, of course, not the law – they are an attempt to fill in some of the ‘grey areas’, provide some clarity to both the police and the public, and reduce the likelihood of conflict between the police and the public. By being open with the public in this way, the police can help build the sense of trust and social solidarity that is needed for them to effectively protect the public.
How the public can respond
We suggest keeping in mind two important aspects of the current situation. The first is that, like all keyworkers, the police cannot simply stay at home (unless they show symptoms of illness) and are therefore at increased risk of catching COVID-19 themselves as they continue to work. This means that they have a vested interest in reducing the spread of COVID-19, for their own sake, and the sake of their families, as well as the community as a whole. The second is that, like the police, the general public can take measures to help manage the coronavirus. Simply complying with the Regulations and staying home as much as possible is doing your part to fight the outbreak. Some people may also be able to volunteer to help with specific community needs. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the government’s NHS Volunteer Scheme, which had over 750,000 people signed up at the time of writing this blog (there is now a temporary pause in recruitment), and citizen-driven community support initiatives such as COVID-19 Mutual Aid, which had gained 3434 members at the time of writing this blog, demonstrate many people’s altruistic desire to step up for the common good.
In this time of crisis, a shared identity of solidarity in the war against COVID-19 might outweigh any underlying concerns about mistrust. Whilst the police have been given powers that could be abused in a police state, and there have been some unfortunate cases of police over-reach, we live in a country where the police are the public and the public are the police. We all of us want the same thing: to get through the COVID-19 situation with as few deaths as possible. Everyone has a part to play, whether it’s enforcing the restrictions in a police uniform, providing medical care in hospital scrubs, or just staying home and watching TV in pyjamas.