Police and public relations during the COVID-19 outbreak

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.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

Public-police conflict

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.

Public-police trust

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.

’Ello ‘ello ‘ello” by Miles Metcalfe is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Note: this is a stock image, not a photograph of police enforcing the new coronavirus regulations)

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.

Final thought

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.

The Johnson Government: Working for the Brexit Clampdown

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.

Mobilising Fear

On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.

These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result?  A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy.  In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.

Cutting Social Support

By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.

Crimes of the Rich and Powerful

Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.

What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”

Labour’s Political Opportunism

And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little.  Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism.  And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls.  In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime.  What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence.  Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’  relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful. 


In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is a vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.

This article has been simultaneously published by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, see https://ccseljmu.wordpress.com/ 

Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.

Crime at the Car Wash? Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA

A report on a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery

Louise Westmarland, Professor of Criminology and Steve Conway, Lecturer, PuLSE at the Open University, organised a conference in November 2018 bringing together police practitioners and academics working in the field of organised crime. This was held with thanks to funding from HERC and the BSC.

What is the National Crime Agency (NCA) and how does it deal with organised crime?

On 2 November 2018, the BSC’s Policing Network, in collaboration with the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) held a conference on Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA at the Open University in Milton Keynes. Details of the event and the speakers are available on the HERC website.

The event gathered a mix of academics and practitioners to consider recent developments in organised crime, its impact and responses.  In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition from both researchers and CJS professionals that a range of organised crimes and social harms can occur in the most mundane of contexts.  Attendees heard about illegal deer hunting in sparsely populated rural areas; exploitation of young people by drug dealers in residential housing estates; and the use of modern slave labour at the local car wash.  The very banality of these settings can further hide and obscure these issues.

Mr Rob Jones, Director at the National Crime Agency (NCA), provided the keynote speech Serious Organised Crime: A view from inside the NCA in which he set out the challenges facing his organisation in relation to cybercrime and county lines. His paper explained the national and international challenges of organised crime. These themes were expanded on by DCI Darran Hill of Thames Valley Police in his paper on The Stronghold Campaign: Fighting Organised Crime in Partnership. Providing a local context, DCI Hill explained the importance of partnership working in combating organised crime, illustrated by the case studies of county lines drug trafficking and successful efforts to close illegal carwashes in Thames Valley.

These papers gave way to a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery and contributors from the audience included senior officers from the local area. Is it unethical to use a hand car wash as it is possible that the workers are being exploited? If you have used a hand car wash were the workers wearing wellingtons and proper waterproof gloves? After Rob and Darran had given us the police ‘inside view’ on these issues, we enjoyed papers by Dr Anna Sergi from Essex University called From mafia to Organised Crime: A comparative analysis of policing models and then a paper by recent Open University PhD graduate, Dr Sarah Hutton Disrupting Organised Crime?

One of the surprising aspects of the morning conference was the frankness and candour of the talks. Rob Jones’ paper on the NCA was definitely an insider’s view, and the talk about Thames Valley’s efforts related to turning young people away from drug crime certainly raised eyebrows. One of the most unexpected contributions was that Darran contradicted a conventional police view – that all drug crime can be solved and that the war on drugs is being ‘won’.

It was good to obtain the current police and NCA view on organised crime and the response to it from Rob Jones and DCI Darran Hill. It became apparent that their organisations are looking to academia to answer a number of questions in respect of debriefing, evaluating operations and securing expertise to deal with organised crime i.e.

  • What difference police organised crime operations have made (what is the legacy)?
  • How organised is modern slavery and human trafficking?
  • What are the offender pathways into organised crime?
  • How to retain the expertise needed to deal with cybercrime?
  • How to re-balance proactive/reactive policing (especially in respect of policing organised crime) after the balance has been tipped firmly towards reactive policing by government cuts?

From Milton Keynes to mafia?

After a coffee break, Anna Sergi treated us all to an entertaining high-speed ride around the organisation of mafia-type organisations; followed by Sarah Hutton’s ‘insider out’ view (as a cop turned academic), detailing her work with organised criminals, whom, she argued, are actually pretty disorganised. Dr Adam Edwards offered some sage observations, including organised crime policy trends and their analytical focus. As he pointed out in his paper:

The way organised crime is addressed in the UK has undergone a major overhaul in the last few years with the creation of the National Crime Agency. The first strategic assessment provides a good snapshot of the current state of organised crime. However, it points to a lack of knowledge about organised crime and its drivers–some of which could be addressed through research and deeper analysis. If the NCA is going to have a better record than its predecessors, it must work on getting the basics right. Knowing your enemy would be a good start.  (RUSI 2014, cited in Edwards, 2016: 987, emphasis added)

These papers all ended up asking a fairly basic question for a conference on organised crime, namely:

So, what exactly is organised crime?

In fact, Dr Sarah Hutton and Dr Anna Sergi highlighted the difficulties and differences that still exist in establishing a definition of organised crime. This is the starting point for any research into the subject. A good solution was put forward by Dr Adam Edwards, Orlando Goodall and Mark Berry in their explanation of the way that organised specific crimes are being analysed using crime script analysis. Orlando and Mark followed a thought provoking talk by Adam Edwards, who gave us the benefit of his experience and unparalleled knowledge of the field. He talked about Sayer’s (2000) realist social relations approach, from threat indication…and its related problems such as privileging enforcement over prevention, to (realist) causal explanation.

Then the afternoon kicked off into a lively no holds barred discussion, with nearly everyone in the audience taking part. This numbered around 30 by now, having reduced from 50 in the morning (well, it was a Friday). All of the papers throughout the day, whilst from contrasting standpoints, had highlighted an interesting range of largely unexplored areas of organised crime. Until recently who would have thought that the local car wash was a site of organised crime? Or a nail bar?  By providing a detailed analysis of the organisation of different crime types, as diverse as the illegal taking of deer, the speakers stimulated so many questions that the session overran, we went straight to tea break and home.

Louise Westmarland and Steve Conway with thanks to Dick Severns and all the conference speakers, convenors and helpers.

Email: louise.westmarland@open.ac.uk

This blog post has also been published on the British Society of Criminology blog, at: https://thebscblog.wordpress.com /2019/02/25/crime-at-the-car-wash-serious-organised-crime-and-a-view-from-inside-the-nca/