Policing the long crisis: an appraisal of the police response to COVID-19

Jon Clements, Director, Elisabeth Aitkenhead, The Police Foundation

Tuesday 22 December 2020


It has been an extraordinary year for policing in England and Wales. Twelve months ago, forces were starting the process of recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers and were cautiously optimistic that the era of “more for less” was drawing to a close. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, thrusting the service into a new and unfamiliar role: public health policing. This has proved to be a crisis like no other, even for a service which is primed to respond to the most serious of incidents.

In more ‘normal’ times, a crisis in policing, however acute, is typically localised and limited in duration to a few days or, at most, as in the case of the 2014 winter floods, a couple of months. As we approach the end of 2020, with much of the country effectively now in a third lockdown, policing in England and Wales has been responding to Covid for ten months and will, realistically, still be enforcing the coronavirus laws well beyond the one year anniversary of lockdown.


In other respects too, the pandemic has challenged the way policing views its role as custodians of public safety. Traditionally, officers run towards danger on our behalf, equipped with powers, training and kit to eliminate the threat. But dealing with a virus is very different to handling a crime or terrorist incident. When the pandemic first struck, there were no stocks of PPE and almost no time to prepare for new laws which the government expected the police to enforce. Neither was there any sense of when or how the situation would be resolved.


This has been the background to a research project on the policing of the pandemic undertaken by the Police Foundation and Crest Advisory. This article sets out our emerging findings on the effectiveness of the police response, covering the challenges the police have faced, how successfully the service has responded, what this may mean for policing in 2021, and the lessons learned for the future. It is based on interviews and survey responses from all levels within policing, from chief constables and those at the heart of national decision-making, to operational leaders in local forces, managers and frontline police officers. In addition, we have spoken to a number of senior figures in central and local government and in partner agencies[1].


There are five key findings:

  • At the start of the crisis the police service successfully galvanised itself to deliver what was required of it during a pandemic;

  • The use of a national coordination centre through Operation Talla provided police forces with critical tools and information;

  • Policing has been forced to use its discretion on a strategic scale while walking a fine line with the public and with government;

  • There are growing concerns about workforce wellbeing and fatigue as the service delivers business as usual alongside its Covid related work;

  • There is a general frustration at the poor performance of the criminal justice system during the pandemic and a concern that this could impact on public confidence in the police, as well as the courts and the CPS.

Galvanising the service

Many of the policing leaders we spoke to praised the quick adaptations that were made by forces to meet social distancing requirements, with IT systems and remote working structures set up to allow most of the workforce that could, to work from home. Leaders at national and local levels told us that the pandemic acted as a catalyst for a shift towards more agile remote working in the future.


“What this has allowed us to do is accelerate a number of ICT rollout programmes that will be trundling along in their inimitable speed, and it's really demonstrated because if you want large parts of your organisation to work from home, then they need to have the appropriate equipment and capability.”

- National policing leader


“The process of getting things like learning online would have taken us months and years to get through governance processes through procurement arrangements. And we've had to short circuit all of that. And we've also had to move at a pace that is really new to us and what helped was being galvanised around a single priority."

- National Senior Police leader


However, it could be argued that these changes have been long overdue and one might question the extent to which these moves represent genuinely innovative practice. Though policing adapted more successfully than some educational institutions, for example, we have not found evidence that the pandemic has triggered radical changes to police operating models. More broadly, we have found that ambitions to use COVID-19 as a springboard for deeper reform within policing have not yet been realised.



The effectiveness of national coordination

Over the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that the policing landscape is overly fragmented, leading to wide variation in standards and practice. Whilst the National Policing Coordination Centre (NPoCC) has been established since 2013, in the absence of resources or legislative teeth, it has generally struggled to play a meaningful national coordination role. However, according to the senior policing leaders we spoke to, one of the indirect effects of the pandemic has been a strengthening of national coordination structures, albeit through Operation Talla specifically. Indeed some of the biggest successes that the service was able to point to were attributed to those very structures. Supply and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) particularly, was recognised as a success story early in the coronavirus pandemic.


“We have never been at a point where we run out of stock of anything. And we are now in a position and have been for some time, where we've got sufficient National Stock, we understand it in granular detail. We track it daily. We know exactly what exists in which for some of these items, and we've got forward orders in place, and we were broadly planning out for the next 12 weeks at any given point we've stopped for at least three to four.”

- National Senior Police leader


Research by the Police Federation of England & Wales[2] largely supported this view, with nine out of ten local federations agreeing by late April that their members had sufficient access to PPE rising to all local federations from late May onwards. Officers we spoke to in two focus groups at a rural police force agreed that while in the initial days of lockdown there had been shortages of some PPE, this has not been a significant problem.


Operation Talla was able to monitor usage of PPE on a daily basis through a dashboard built for this purpose. Beyond ensuring that forces did not run out of PPE it provided valuable real time operational insights.


“I bought extra supplies of masks when we were coming out of lockdown… [because] I thought, well, police officers are going to have more contact with the public, they're going to need more PPE. But actually, because they'd been wearing PPE for such a long time, they were sort of suffering from PPE fatigue and they just weren't wearing it. So we were then able to put out our communications to say ‘no, this is the key time when you should actually be wearing it, you're more at risk and more exposed’. So that was a really sort of important information that we took out of the dashboard.”

- National Police Co-ordination Lead


In fact, a better flow of data from forces to the centre was identified by many as a key achievement to be built on in the future. Due to concerns that policing would have to manage absence levels of up to 40 per cent of the workforce, structures were established to ensure government understood the supply of available officers and staff on a daily basis. While this put a new requirement on forces, there was a consensus that this has raised data reporting standards and improved local capability.


“So initially it was a bit lumpy because they [forces] weren't used to doing it. And because we were asking for it seven days a week, then they needed to gear up capabilities to do that. They have adjusted to it, and I'd say probably took us about two, three weeks, but we got to a point where it was consistent, reliable data, and we've got a complete data set. They could see the value of it. And I think it's helped them to look at their own absence recording in a different way as well. ”

- National Police Co-ordination Lead


National coordination was an essential tool in ensuring that forces had a consistent understanding of the new rules and regulations, and guidance on how they should enforce them. Given 12 options for the biggest challenge they faced in coronavirus policing, 74 per cent of superintendents who responded chose “keeping pace with changes in policy and regulation” - more than any other option - while 57 per cent chose “interpreting and applying national guidance and/or support”. Despite the scale of the challenge, 71 per cent of superintendents who responded said guidance from the NPCC and College was clear or very clear and 85 per cent said the corporate communications team or leadership team in their force had been effective or very effective in disseminating information or guidance.


Most were confident about what they were being asked to do early on, even given the fast-paced changes in legislation. Indeed most policing stakeholders recognised that the challenge of communicating changes to the law was largely not within policing’s gift.


I think it has been a huge headache…we will get something at last minute notice. If it will just come out in the media, we might not even know about it. And if we're lucky we might get 24 hours notice or we'll get some indication but we then need to translate that and get through the whole legal sign off routes, etc them out to forces is to enable them to then actually put things into practice. I think that communication has been tricky.

- National Senior Police leader


Unsurprisingly, the impact of this appears to have been felt greatest among police officers tasked with patrolling and responding within communities. In two focus groups held in a rural police force, neighbourhood and response officers consistently described struggling to keep pace with the volume and frequency of updates on guidance from their forces. A number reported using mainstream media as a source of information on how rules were changing or answering queries from members of the public by using internet search engines.


Your general members of the public, when they come up to me asking questions, I just felt like I didn’t even know the answer. You know, the majority of the time I just Google it, find out what the restrictions were. How bad is that? The fact of they’re coming to me as a police officer expecting me to know the answer and I haven’t got a clue… because there’s so many mixed messages internally and externally.

- Frontline police officer



Discretion on a strategic scale

At the start of lockdown, a key element of the narrative around policing was concern that its new role would damage the model of policing by consent and perhaps fundamentally alter the service’s relationship with its communities. Previous research conducted by the Police Foundation and Crest, based on focus groups with members of the public in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and London, suggested that - broadly speaking - this concern was misplaced; the majority of the public has not changed their view of policing during the pandemic.


In fact, it may prove to be that the pandemic put policing’s relations with government under greater strain than its relations with the public - perhaps because the service took a conscious decision to ensure government policy did not set officers on a collision course with their communities.


Earlier this month, Martin Hewitt, chair of the NPCC, told the London Policing College that policing had experienced a “tense and difficult” relationship at times with Downing Street over how to enforce coronavirus laws. “We have had to assert our independence about the way that we will do what we do, while at the same time playing a really full role to help the country fight the pandemic”.


Tactically, this determination to ensure policing maintained good relations with communities wherever possible was captured in the “4Es” approach - the principles by which officers would engage, explain, encourage and, only in the last resort, enforce in response to breaches of coronavirus laws. This has been widely praised as a success for being clearly understandable and therefore widely applicable across the board. In particular, the emphasis on engagement – rather than knee-jerk enforcement - was thought by some we interviewed to have strengthened levels of public support.


We have been very clear on our approach using the 4 E's and the Chief and command team have been very visible in the media re-enforcing what the public can expect from us.

- Superintendent


In general terms, our local communities have confidence with the balance that our Force has taken with engage, explain, encourage vs enforcement and local surveying indicates a high level of satisfaction with that.

- Superintendent


In our focus groups with response and neighbourhood officers, there was a consensus that the 4Es had been an asset when engaging with members of the public who were in breach and had given officers “cover” to use their discretion widely. However, some officers noted that the 4Es were less effective when explaining to people reporting breaches that no enforcement would occur.


I remember one guy saying ‘I’ve seen on the news that you can fine them - why aren’t you doing that? I’m vulnerable, I’m stuck in my house, I’m obeying the rules and they’re not. Why aren’t you doing something about it?’ It was the sense they were upset that someone else wasn’t following the rules and was doing as they pleased. It was really difficult to explain to them. it was almost like you were fobbing them off.

- Frontline police officer


People feel it’s almost like an injustice and we’re fobbing them off because we can’t be bothered or its too much effort, whereas a lot of the time it was the proportionate thing to do, it was the right thing to, but in the wider context they can’t see that.

- Frontline police officer


None of which is to say there was total uniformity in how policing responded to the pandemic. It was recognised that local forces' approaches to enforcement were different, particularly early on, when the rules were still relatively fresh. Nonetheless, our interviews with local senior police stakeholders emphasised the usefulness of national guidance combined with the need for local discretion to respond to varying needs in different parts of the country. For example, some rural forces took a decision to monitor those travelling into the area for excursions.


I do understand that drivers for them [rural forces] were different, because they were seeing a significant influx of people from outside, and some travelling significant distances, just because they thought no one will challenge them.

- National Senior Police leader



Workforce fatigue during an extended crisis

There is widespread concern that we have not yet seen the full extent of the impact that the last nine months has had on the police workforce. Local senior police stakeholders expressed apprehension about burnout and workforce fatigue, given that the large majority of the workforce had been working harder, for longer and without taking adequate time on annual leave. The Superintendents survey highlighted similar themes, particularly concerns about the impact on the mental health of police officers and staff.


“I think the wellbeing impact is hidden because people are embarrassed to report on feelings such as loneliness caused through lock down. I think there is real work fatigue amongst staff and a lack of chance to recuperate from the workplace due to lockdown.”

- Superintendent


“More recently, demand has returned to normal (across the whole organisation, including Supts) and we are struggling to manage BAU [business as usual] and Covid. Fatigue is setting in”

- Superintendent

“Increased working from home has in many areas led to productivity but that may dip as people become fatigued and miss the companionship of working together”

- Superintendent


From our interviews and discussion with chief constables and PCCs it is apparent that these concerns are shared by policing’s leadership and will be a key issue in 2021. A survey conducted in June of this year, by Skills for Justice[3], found that amongst just over 2,500 public sector workers (including in policing) 45 per cent reported a negative impact on physical health as a result of amongst other things, working extra hours. 68 per cent of participants in the same survey reported a decline in mental health as a result of working through the crisis. Given the crisis is continuing into its tenth month and will not ease until next spring at the earliest, sustaining a happy and motivated workforce presents a major challenge.



Frustration with the wider criminal justice system

The criminal justice system went into the pandemic in a weak and uncertain state – with a growing backlog in the courts and unsustainable caseloads within the probation service. Covid has exacerbated that crisis and this has not gone unnoticed by police chiefs.


The criminal justice system is not a system at all, and I would say has been the single biggest issue during this period and… will be the legacy from a policing perspective of this pandemic, in a negative sense, policing always feels like the poor relation in the criminal justice system.

- Senior Local Police Leader


There is widespread concern about the growing backlog in the Crown Courts which modelling by Crest Advisory suggests could increase to 195,000 cases by 2024. Several of those we interviewed spoke of the challenges that the court backlog caused the police and the potential impact on public confidence in the criminal justice system.


The court backlog has caused additional work for the police. Since early in the pandemic the police service have been managing custody and remote court appearances in police cells, which was previously managed within the courts by the private company G4S. In the Superintendents survey, 53 per cent of respondents thought that courts had been ‘very ineffective’ or ‘fairly ineffective’ in adapting and functioning under lockdown restrictions (40 per cent did not answer). Alongside this, 27 per cent thought that the CPS had been fairly or very ineffective in adapting to lockdown restrictions, this is compared to 15 per cent who felt that they were either very or fairly effective.


Superintendents responding to our survey were also concerned about victims disengaging from the process due to cases taking too long to get to court.

Conclusion

Policing is good in a crisis. Many people we have spoken to, from PCs to chief constables, share a view that policing was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic but that the service responded rapidly to deliver what was asked of it. PPE was sourced and distributed to forces, information on new laws was cascaded efficiently and data from the 43 forces collated and monitored on key indicators.


Locally, forces have enabled home working through the use of digital technology and this may bring benefits in the future, such as through time saved on travel for meetings and lower sickness rates. However, these are, arguably, long overdue changes in working practices and their long term impact on effectiveness, as opposed to efficiency, is currently unclear. Fears that the police’s relationship with the public would come under strain are yet to be realised and it may be that it is policing’s relationship with parts of government which has been more challenging.


More broadly, there is a major question as to how long policing can remain good in a crisis. With non-Covid demand at pre-lockdown levels, ongoing restrictions across the country and the potential for another national lockdown after Christmas, it is unsurprising that managers have raised concerns about staff fatigue. Many officers query the long-term impacts of home working/isolation for some and worry officer morale may have been weakened. Policing has risen tactically to the challenge. But the effects of Covid on policing’s operating environment, and on the justice system and other public services in particular, may prove impossible to mitigate indefinitely.

References

[1] Crest and the Police Foundation conducted approximately 30 interviews with local and national policing leaders and stakeholders in Autumn 2020, distributed a mass survey to the Police Superintendents Association members, and held focus groups with neighbourhood and response officers and PCSOs in Cheshire Police in November.

[2] 'Police Federation 'Pay and Morale Survey 2020', an overview of the findings can be found here [https://www.polfed.org/news/latest-news/2020/survey-reveals-devastating-impact-of-pandemic-on-morale/]

[3] Skills for Justice (2020) COVID-19 Insights: Impact on staff and priorities for recovery page 15 [https://www.sfjuk.com/images/pdf/C19-WF-Report-impact-on-staff-and-organisational-priorities.pdf]

Crest_Logo_White.png

The UK's only consultancy dedicated to crime and justice.

Crest_Logos_Blue_200.png