openJustice: Opinion

Democracy, policing and the coronavirus pandemic

Policing during the pandemic shows that we still have a long way to go before the UK can say it polices by consent.

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Ben Twomey
10 November 2020
During the first COVID-19 lockdown, police in London stopped and searched young black men more than 20,000 times, the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black 15 to 24-year olds in the capital.
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Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash.

As England enters its second national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police officers continue to go to work to keep us safe. They are still responding to emergencies, investigating murders and finding missing people. Among the traditional police work though, our police are taking on new roles. Breaking up house parties and handing out substantial fines to individuals and businesses who break COVID-19 rules have become part of the job.

In the interests of public health, this pandemic has seen our liberties curtailed more significantly than any time since the Second World War. While polls suggest that many agree with the principles of the new measures, the situation has also introduced a challenge for the police and their legitimacy.

Discussions around policing practices in the US have dominated British media of late. Without getting into theories of ‘bad apples’ versus ‘structural oppression’, the footage and images that stream in from the US can go a long way in shaping our opinion of police officers and perception of policing here.

The democratisation of policing

Disturbingly, many of the shocking scenes of police brutality and racism that we see in the US take place under the command of elected Sheriffs. So, does democracy really give us better policing? Should power be better shared with the public to be seen as legitimate? Should we have a clearer say over the institutions that regulate our lives?

The UK introduced Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012 in what some called the ‘Americanisation’ of British policing. These are directly elected officials responsible for deciding police strategy and holding their local police force to account on behalf of the public. Their powers also include setting the police budget and hiring or firing the local Chief Constable.

Police and Crime Commissioners are supposed to bring the principle of 'policing by consent' to life. Almost two hundred years after the modern police were founded, the public would have the opportunity to explicitly consent, by way of voting, to how they are policed.

The problem in 2012 was that very few people took that opportunity. Less than one in six people participated in choosing their Police and Crime Commissioner. Four years later, this rose to one in four, but this was largely because the election date then coincided with local council elections that had a higher turnout.

Another election was due in 2020, but was postponed by the government until at least May 2021 because of the pandemic. This means every strategic policing decision made locally this year is done so with a mandate from the government, while the mandate from local people has expired.

This could be a serious problem, as so many new laws have been, and still are being, brought in by the government in response to COVID-19. Many are being introduced without parliamentary scrutiny, but most definitely with the assumption that the police will be the ones to enforce such rules.

Once confined to the cities, anti-lockdown protests are already spilling out into towns. If polls are to be believed, most people are still in favour of lockdowns to control the virus, but the policing of protests has always been a contentious issue and has now been thrust into the limelight. The Home Secretary has even called for police to stop protests of two or more people. The government may have banned protests, but enforcing this ban remains an operational decision for the Chief Constable, guided by the strategy of their Police Commissioner (or Mayor if in London or Greater Manchester). The approach to policing the grey areas of legitimate or illegal protest is therefore almost entirely down to local discretion.

Tackling racism in policing

When the Home Secretary Priti Patel demanded a clampdown on Black Lives Matter protests shortly after the first lockdown in England, one Chief Constable called it a “chilling abuse of power”. In Bristol, the Home Secretary bypassed the Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner to have a “firm” conversation with the Chief Constable following the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue. While this jostle for power grabs headlines, it also reveals how the people who are the subject of policing debates often have very little power to shape them.

It is no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement caught the public’s attention at the same time that COVID-19 was also exposing serious racial inequalities in the UK and abroad. Liberty found that police forces in England and Wales were up to seven times more likely to fine people of colour for breaking lockdown rules in the spring. The government has been considering increasing the size of these fines. If they go unpaid, it can lead to criminalisation. While we distance ourselves from the worst aspects of US policing, it is a fact that there is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons here than in the United States.

But across England and Wales efforts are being made by Police and Crime Commissioners and Mayors to tackle disproportionality in policing. A key debate has long been around the use of stop and search powers, and again the pandemic has brought this into even sharper focus. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, police in London stopped and searched young black men more than 20,000 times, the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black 15 to 24-year olds in the capital.

One way of addressing this is to introduce local Stop and Search Scrutiny Panels, which are made up of members of the public who are independent from the police.

Panel members regularly meet to review police records of stop and searches that have happened in their area and challenge any that do not meet their standard. In the West Midlands, where I oversaw ten of these panels on behalf of the Police and Crime Commissioner, they have directly led to refresher training for individual police officers and influenced strategic decision-making. Being open to challenge has undoubtedly improved police recording and the use of stop and search.

In recent years, a scrutiny panel in Birmingham made an impact nationally when one of their recommendations entered Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s guidance. The panel contended locally that where the smell of cannabis in a public open space was often recorded by officers to demonstrate reasonable suspicion of an offence, the outcomes from searching someone on these grounds were questionable.

The panel noted that the subject of the stop and search was significantly less likely to be carrying anything illegal. Police were also even more likely to stop people of colour on these grounds than the already disproportionate average for stop and search. Because of this, West Midlands Police changed their practices and helped to inform national guidance: “smell of cannabis” alone is no longer considered reasonable suspicion to justify a stop and search. Police forces and elected Police Commissioners had, up until that point, never challenged those grounds. Involving the public proved invaluable to more effective and proportionate use of police time.

As lockdown measures continue to either subside or intensify at the behest of Westminster, it is vital that the public consent to how the pandemic is policed.

Models like Stop and Search Scrutiny Panels could be adopted to empower communities. The public must shape and share in the vision for a safer society. Police officers, as public servants, must be accountable, but their elected Police and Crime Commissioner must also be proactive in engaging communities between elections. Democratising the police cannot be achieved through a small minority of the public outsourcing their consent and confidence once every four years. There is so much further to go.

The pandemic and the government policies it has provoked make this an urgent concern. But what comes after is also a vital question. Building back better must involve empowering local people in the decisions that affect their lives.

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