Police power during COVID-19

Olivia Miller
Picture by Getty Images

Dr Marian Duggan, a criminologist at Kent's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, has commented on the restriction of civil liberties and enhancement of police powers via the Coronavirus Act 2020. She stresses that this ‘must not come at a cost to assisting genuine victims of crime’. Dr Duggan said:

‘Britain – along with much of the world – is currently navigating its way through unprecedented times as the COVID-19 pandemic forces rapid social, political and legal developments. Concerns about over-zealous policing rest on the interpretation, enforcement and continued existence of these new powers. Already, we have seen police forces respond to the Government’s instructions in different ways, including:

  • Humberside, Greater Manchester, Avon and Somerset and West Midlands police operating online portals for members of the public to report those who appear to be flouting the rules.
  • Derbyshire police using drones to spot people venturing into countryside for exercise.
  • Durham and North Yorkshire police employing checkpoints on roads.

‘Such powers may be deemed necessary in the current climate, but the public must be assured that they will indeed be time-limited if policing is to be considered legitimate – and not unduly authoritarian – once the pandemic is over. Similarly, efforts should be taken to dissuade the development of a perceived ‘surveillance state’.

‘Contemporary policing is underpinned by a ‘policing by consent’ model, through which police legitimacy is founded upon trust, shared values, fairness and effectiveness. In light of the ongoing confusion surrounding best practice during the pandemic, it is vital that people are not unduly or unfairly penalised. For example, while the police can issue fixed penalty notices of £60 to those considered to be flouting the rules (or £120 for repeat offenders), many members of the public will be facing unexpected financial hardship as a result of the emergency measures.

‘Finally, these new policing powers must not come at a cost to assisting genuine victims of crime. Domestic violence rates are rising fast; Avon and Somerset Police reported a 20% increase in incidents in the last two weeks alone. The vast majority of these incidents involve existing victims who are now at more risk due to being forced to spend all day every day with their abuser. On average, two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence in England and Wales. Domestic violence experts know that by the time this pandemic is over that the average will have increased; it’s imperative that the police do everything in their powers to limit by how much.’

Dr Marian Duggan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Director of Studies for Criminology at the University of Kent. Furthermore she is the Director of Kent’s Gender, Sexuality and Culture Research Cluster. Marian’s research focuses on informing policy and practice to reduce sexual, gendered and hate-based victimisation. She has published widely in these areas and is actively involved in the charitable sector, acting as a Trustee for the Rising Sun Domestic Violence and Abuse Charity.

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