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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Reading some tabloid news sites, you’d think the public really disliked the police. For most of the last year, they’ve faced consistent criticism, often from entirely different directions: they’ve been criticised both for standing by as people blatantly ignore social distancing, and for an over-zealous pursuit of minor transgressions. What’s the truth? What do people think about the police in the context of the lockdown and what do they think more generally?

The polls are a mess on first look; the numbers appear to be all over the place. However, look carefully and it’s possible to draw some important conclusions. On the most fundamental question – whether people think the police are doing a good or bad job – YouGov’s tracker shows a clear majority of people think they do a good job. At the beginning of 2021, the public said they were doing a good job by 67 per cent to 22 per cent (with the rest saying “don’t know”). This hasn’t changed significantly since the tracker began in July 2019, when approval ratings were 70 per cent to 25 per cent.

Things have slipped since the early days of lockdown. On March 30, approval ratings were 75 per cent to 15 per cent. To be fair, this fall looks starker than it otherwise might – because they had a spike in popularity in the early days of March, when there was a surge in the popularity of “the state” more broadly (including the Government). Yet there’s no denying they’ve taken a hit.

The kickings the tabloid news sites have dished out to the police have been strongest when the police have been accused of over-reacting – for example, over the recent fines for two women who drove to a beauty spot to take exercise together. But you’d struggle to make a case that the public were truly annoyed about supposed excesses of the police. On the contrary, the polls very strongly suggest the public are much more irritated with the police not enforcing basic lockdown rules with greater severity.

YouGov poll from a couple of weeks ago showed 52 per cent of the public think the police have not been tough enough during the lockdown, with only 12 per cent saying they’ve been too tough, and 20 per cent saying they’ve got the balance right.

This has been the basic picture since throughout the lockdown: in April 2020, another YouGov poll for Crest Advisory showed, by huge majorities, people were comfortable with the police stopping people to ask their business, arresting people who didn’t return home when told to do so, issuing penalty fines, and setting up roadblocks.

Civil liberties concerns kicked in a few times: people were divided on the use of drones and facial recognition technology, and they opposed the police naming and shaming on social media. An updated Crest Advisory YouGov poll, just released, reveals numbers haven’t moved much over the various lockdowns.

This takes us back to people’s fundamental views on the police. While they are basically still popular, where the police struggle it’s on one big thing: having the wrong priorities. The lockdown data cited immediately above hints at the problem: people want visible policing where they can see obvious benefit; they are dubious about the merits of obsessing about social media or modern technology (within reason).

And the very negative polling that exists on the police is on perceptions of how seriously they take the most serious crimes. Polls show nearly half the population don’t believe they take assault seriously enough; by nearly 2-1 they don’t believe the police take burglary seriously enough; and half the population don’t believe they take mugging seriously enough.

What does all this mean for the police? First, on the lockdown, that people want to see them lead a crackdown on consistent and basic rule-breaking – large indoor gatherings, very large outdoor gatherings and, particularly in London, wilful ignoring of the need to wear masks on public transport.

Second, more generally, that people want them to focus overwhelmingly on those crimes that strike fear into communities (usually those linked to violence and intimidation) and that they stop being dragged into public rows on the uses of social media; while there’s a role for the police in dealing with blatant intimidation online, their inexplicable decision to record incidents which aren’t even crimes will hurt them over time.

There’s a final point to all this – which one my colleague Blair Gibbs makes (who used to advise the PM on home affairs issues). This is that the recent high-profile recruitment of 20,000 new officers is going to raise public expectations about police performance.

While some public expectations might be unrealistic, nonetheless people will expect to see a more visible and assertive set of police forces across the country. Having the wrong priorities amid far higher expectations will likely begin to erode those positive numbers discussed at the start.