Two weeks into the UK’s coronavirus lockdown the debate continues on how the public should interpret government guidance and how the police should enforce new laws designed to respond to the public health emergency.
This follows considerable criticism of some police tactics including the use of a drone to film ramblers in the Peak District and the arrest and £660 fine of a woman at Newcastle railway station. Former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption said that excessive measures were in danger of turning Britain into a “police state” and numerous legal figures have argued police officers have acted beyond their powers. Transport Secretary Grant Schapps has agreed that there had been ‘teething problems’ and that some forces had been over zealous in enforcing the rules. In response, Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, has set out a clear strategy for officers to “engage, explain, encourage” and move only to “enforce” as a last resort and new guidance has been issued to officers stressing the need for a “consistent” level of service and a “inquisitive, questioning mindset” when dealing with the public outside their homes.
With Health Secretary Matt Hancock warning that physical exercise could be banned altogether as part of a stricter lockdown if a minority of people continue to flout the current social distancing rules – a threat immediately supported by the newly minted leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer - the debate on how police should draw the line is unlikely to go away. So what does the British public itself think about the current police approach to enforcing the lockdown? Our YouGov survey shows broad overall support for the police approach to enforcing the lockdown, albeit with some interesting caveats and hints at the limits of public consent.
First the headlines:
42% of adults fully support the current police approach, a further 32% support it but think in some cases it has gone too far. Only 6% think the police have to date been too heavy handed and 14% want to see tougher action. Just 2% think the police have no role to play in enforcing the lockdown;
Women are more supportive overall than men of the police approach ( 46% v 38%) and while 18-24 year olds were less likely to be fully supportive they were also less likely to think police had gone too far;
Geographically, Londoners are the least supportive overall with 66% fully supportive or supportive thinking the police have in some cases gone too far compared to 77% in the rest of the South, 74% in the Midlands and Wales, 71% in the North and 81% in Scotland.
Secondly, the specific ‘comfortability’ of particular tactics they police are using or could in theory use in the future.
82% were comfortable with ‘stop and account’ powers which allow the police to ask people to provide a valid reason for being out of their home while 14% were uncomfortable;
72% were comfortable with the police arresting people who failed to comply with an instruction to return home while 22% were uncomfortable;
75% were comfortable with the police issuing fines to people who breached the lockdown while 19% were uncomfortable;
50% were comfortable with using drones to photograph people making unnecessary journeys while 43% were uncomfortable;
70% were comfortable with police roadblocks asking motorists to justify their journeys while 24% were uncomfortable;
38% were comfortable with naming and shaming people on social media while 54% were uncomfortable;
50% were comfortable with facial recognition in public places to identify people breaching the lockdown while 42% were uncomfortable;
43% were comfortable with analysis of social media accounts to identify those in breach of the lockdown while 48% were uncomfortable;
51% were comfortable with asking people to report others who breach the rules, with 42% uncomfortable.
It seems to us that these figures showing public support for police enforcement of the lockdown is not a blank cheque. People are, broadly speaking, comfortable with face-to-face police enforcement up to and including tactics such as roadblocks which are themselves highly unusual. However, public support starts to fall when people are asked about more remote, less human tactics such as the use of social media to name and shame those flouting social distancing rules, or new technology such as drones to photograph people. It seems likely that any attempt to use facial recognition or look through social media accounts to enforce the lockdown would currently cause significant concern to many. And, of course, the UK is only two weeks into its lockdown and it would be interesting to see how this support may shift if support for government policy changes, frustration grows at the economic and social impact or even if continued good weather encourages people to leave their houses unnecessarily. Overall, these numbers will be a much needed boost for overstretched police forces up and down the country, showing that an overwhelming proportion of the public support their approach. However, we conclude that while a small proportion of the public say the police should take tougher action, in order to maintain support, the police should continue its current approach of working with communities in line with the principles of policing by consent.