Katy Bourne is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex and chairman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Our version of lockdown is light by comparison to other nations but the restrictions on our movements are nevertheless alien to British citizens.
We all want the Government’s strategy to succeed – but we know that the impact on the economy, social cohesion, and our mental health, is damaging and, for some, possibly permanent.
Will we emerge with a stronger urge for self-preservation or a stronger need for community? How will citizens view those responsible for the massive changes to our normal routines? Will we respect or resent them?
Policing got thrust to the front and centre of the pandemic when the Coronavirus Bill provided enhanced police powers to enforce public health measures. Many commentators reacted immediately to warn of the end of our traditional liberties.
A handful of police interactions or warnings were highlighted as evidence of a police state in-waiting. I think that is nonsense. It’s not what the Government requires, it’s not what the police want, and I’m fairly sure it’s not what the public would tolerate.
What has surprised Ministers and officials though, is people’s compliance with the restrictions on movement and gatherings. So, is the great British public successfully policing itself so far? Citizens are flooding police with calls and emails to report people making non-essential trips. Some are doubtless extensions of simmering disputes but many will be motivated by a genuine fear of the virus.
Our collective response to the pandemic has been largely good-natured up to now. Our police have maintained the Peelian traditions of policing by engaging and explaining, rather than enforcing the “stay at home” message.
The majority of the public believe the police response to be measured, especially in the face of being coughed and spat at and bitten.
Although we may be “past the peak”, it is deemed not yet safe to lift restrictions. Do we have the patience to continue and do our police officers have everything they need to tackle those people who can’t or won’t stick with it?
Some have called for more police powers such as entering properties to disperse house parties but I don’t think that is necessary or ideal. Adding more powers to deal with the here and now may appear valuable today, but the public may grow weary of them in the future.
Our citizens quite rightly want the police to be targeting criminals and preventing and deterring crime rather than moving people on from beaches and beauty spots or policing access to recycling facilities and garden centres when they re-open.
With overall crime down during lockdown measures, some may say the police have got less to do and so, perhaps, we won’t need to recruit another 20,000 officers? That would be short-sighted.
Criminal behaviour is like water, it will always find a level. The pandemic has created the circumstances for some crimes to flourish, such as cyber-crimes and fraud and online exploitation of children. These are not crimes you deter by walking the physical beat…we need officers and experts policing the digital beat as well.
There are real fears that victims of domestic abuse aren’t reporting it because they believe there is no safe place to go to and that nothing will be done against the perpetrators. We do know that calls to help lines and refuges appear to be spiralling upwards, but many victims feel trapped and powerless.
PCC colleagues across the country are ensuring that abuse support services will continue to get as much funding as we can muster to help victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence, exploitation, and stalking.
Whilst many crime types have fallen during lockdown, we know that when more people are back on the streets, violence and shoplifting will mushroom. We will still need police to be tough on criminals, but how tough should they be with people who break future social distancing rules?
The public health measures we will need to tackle further outbreaks will challenge long-cherished notions of freedom of association and privacy.
China imposed the strictest controls on the population with citizens effectively bar-coded with every movement and interaction tracked. What liberties are the British willing to suspend or sacrifice?
If we have to go down the route of mapping citizen’s movements with phone apps and monitoring people as they enter buildings and transport networks, who will be in charge? Who will control the data? Health officials, the police, the Government?
One thing I am certain of is that the public like the model of policing we already have, and they definitely don’t want to lose their local constabularies or the transparency and accountability that Police and Crime Commissioners are a key part of.
Our constabularies reflect the people they serve and that is too valuable to lose at a time when we need maximum public co-operation.
We may have to maintain social distancing for some time. Self-policing of our movements and interactions with the aid of technology will be infinitely preferable to having police officers checking our details for years to come.
We don’t want to turn our backs on 200 years of the most respected policing model in the world because we are not sure that we can trust ourselves to change our behaviour for our own safety.