I wrote recently about the “slippery slope” of police behaviour in response to the coronavirus, where the old adage of “give them an inch and they will take a mile” was a fitting description.
Many police forces and representatives have since been publicly apologising in response to a slew of examples of over-policing which have included: people being threatened with arrest for using their front garden and an official police Twitter account reporting monitoring of the “non-essential aisles” in supermarkets.
I have a lot of sympathy with police officers at this time. They are an essential public service who, even at the best of times, are daily put into dangerous situations to keep us all safe.
And now they have been thrust onto the frontline of enforcing the most restrictive measures ever implemented in Britain’s history, with contradictory messages coming from the government and legislation that has been rushed through to deal with this urgent health crisis. Individual officers have been deployed to enforce the rules on an “enforce first, learn the rules later” basis and then been left high and dry when that goes wrong.
We need a bit of flexibility and common sense and for everyone to try and see each other's best intentions as we work our way through this global crisis. Even I have to cut the police a bit of slack – we are asking a lot from them at this time of crisis and mistakes will be made. But likewise, the police have to cut the public some slack, while we are being asked to make huge sacrifices and transform our way of life.
The challenge now is for senior police officers to ensure that individual officers are properly trained on what the coronavirus legislation does and does not allow, while fostering a sensible approach to the wide range of reasonable excuses that people might have for leaving their homes. Every police officer must understand the difference between informing the public of the government’s health guidance and enforcing the related, but sometimes different laws.
In particular, every police officer must fully understand under what circumstances they can make arrests or use force to ensure compliance with their orders or advice.
No-one should be arrested, touched, or threatened by a police officer unless this is properly sanctioned by law. Arrests and fines must not be a knee jerk reaction by officers who are simply frustrated that someone does not do what the officer said. No police officer should be allowed onto our streets until they can be trusted to make these decisions and act lawfully at all times.
Aside from the negative stories, there are wonderful examples of police officers going above and beyond to help vulnerable people in their communities. I’m sure these happen more often than we can even imagine, and it must hurt these police when they see the poorly handled, poorly communicated situations that go viral so easily. Perhaps senior officers could set up some kind of buddying system so that the best officers can pollinate their approach like bees in the spring flowers, spreading among colleagues the common sense, public spirited approach that British policing is founded upon.
The best reflection of our society is how we all pull through at times of crisis. This is one of the most challenging times of our lives. By working together, in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support, we can put this virus to bed and come out of this with a stronger sense of community and a fuller understanding of our shared humanity.