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Policing the pandemic: public attitudes to police visibility, enforcement and fairness

Insights Perspective


Jon Clements, Executive Director | Michael Skidmore, Senior Researcher, the Police Foundation

Wednesday 21 October 2020

“I feel bad for them... I just think they haven't been strict at all, to be honest. It was kind of [a] free for all and every single week it’s changing. No one knows what’s going on. So I understand why all the people are just doing what they want with policies changing so often."

Female, 18-24, Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

In response to the coronavirus pandemic the government has introduced public health regulations with unprecedented reach into our everyday lives. The scope of the regulations suddenly made potential offenders out of large numbers of otherwise law-abiding people who were willing to bend or flout the rules. At the height of lockdown one survey found that a quarter (25 per cent) of adults were not adhering to the rules for restricted movement and three quarters (75 per cent) were not adhering to the social isolation rules.[1] In tackling such rule-breaking the police have had to balance the need to enforce the law with a desire not to stray too far from the tradition of policing by consent. The police have long exercised discretion in their enforcement of laws, often by weighing up their resources, public expectations and the severity of harm. To guide forces and the public through this uncharted territory, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing developed an approach based around the ‘4Es’ - engage, explain, encourage and, in the last resort, enforce. The way in which they have implemented this approach has been placed under considerable scrutiny during the pandemic, as they have had to enforce sweeping population-wide controls in a way that is viable, robust and fair.

Crest Advisory and the Police Foundation are currently undertaking research to examine the nature and effectiveness of the police response to the coronavirus pandemic. An important strand of the research is to understand the lived experience of members of the public, asking people directly about how they saw the policing of the restrictions from the beginning of the lockdown in March through to September 2020. This article sets out the emerging findings from focus groups in London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. Given their history of lower levels of trust in the police, and the coincident surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, particular efforts were made to capture the views of black people and young people[2].

Three major themes emerged during the course of these conversations, each of which is discussed in turn; how visible the police were perceived to be in local communities, how vigorous the police were in enforcing the new regulations and whether or not the police are perceived to have enforced the rules fairly.

Visible policing


In our focus groups, members of the public described numerous examples of rule-breaking (including their own) or widespread non-compliance observed in their local neighbourhoods. And the public’s judgements about police effectiveness were in some cases derived less from direct observations of the police but rather from the prevalence of rule-breaking seen in their communities or described in the media. Research has shown the significance of highly visible crime and disorder incidents (so-called ‘signal’ crimes) in shaping overall opinions of the efficacy of police and police activity[3]. The scope of the public health regulations rendered low-level law-breaking plainly visible in everyday life. Furthermore, infringements were perceived to have potentially grave consequences in terms of actual or potential health risk to others in the community. A heightened sensitivity to rule-breaking was evident in our groups and this fed into negative views of the police response.

“I don’t think [the police] did that well to be honest. Because there’ve been some incidents where people have been doing their normal day-to-day things. And going out and doing their normal stuff that they shouldn’t have been doing. I think it’s not been dealt with because near me there’s, it is still the same.”

Male, 18-24, Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

It is in this context that many had the impression that police visibility in their local communities was unchanged or at least lower than had been expected.

"I'd say I’ve probably seen around the same amount of police as before lockdown and before that. But I feel like it should have been more, considering more things need to be enforced right now. Obviously, you can't make [more staff] out of thin air, but I feel like it's been very similar to what it was before. It’s just the amount of stuff that needs to be enforced in the current situation has increased quite drastically."

Male, 18-24, Birmingham, Multiple ethnicity group

Echoing previous research on adherence to public health rules, people felt that rule breaking was driven by varying perceptions of personal risk and also growing confusion over public communications and rule-setting from the government[4]. Some believed that police visibility ought to play a role in encouraging the public to take the rules seriously[5].

"Just a very, very low presence of people actually policing what was going on, this massive thing that’s happened to us all. Yet nobody seemed to be having any control over what was supposed to be going on, who is supposed to be wearing masks. Still, are we? There’s so much confusion. Whose job was that?"

Male, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

Added to that, the police themselves were sometimes seen as falling short of compliance, particularly in relation to wearing face coverings in public. There was some appreciation of the practical challenges due to the nature of their work, but most people wanted to see the police abiding by the same rules and setting an example. This mattered, because these omissions chipped away at the legitimacy of the regulations.

"They are the power and figure of authority for the citizens in their day to day life. So if they are wearing it then it just draws in that message more for us really, that it is important to stay protected with the masks and stuff."

Male, 18-24, Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

“Because like my nan, for example, she’s had police come to her on trains and talking about wearing a mask and stuff and she said to me like, well, if they’re not doing it, why should I have to do it?”

Female 18-24, London, All Black-British group

"I think it’s a tough one. Because obviously they’ve got to be able to do the jobs but you should, like they’re in a position of authority too, they should be using that to show, set an example to everyone else, the public.”

Male, 18-24, Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

Many participants were conscious of the police role as intermediaries in

implementing unprecedented government restrictions on public life and

expressed a degree of sympathy for police on the frontlines of the response.

“It’s easy for us to go ahead and scrutinise them [police] because they’re in front of us. We can take a video of them. We’re not in Parliament every week taking a picture of Boris Johnson and going in his face saying ‘you need to fix up’. We can’t... so we easily go for what we can grab, or what we can touch, or what we can see. So we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the police”.

Male, 18-24 Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

“I do feel sorry for the police, because the guidance from the government hasn’t actually been crystal clear, as it is. So for them to try and enforce that on top of that... I’ve seen some of the reaction that they’re getting.”

Male 25-49, Birmingham, All Black-British group

The effectiveness of police interventions


Throughout the crisis a consent-based model has been adopted by police, one that emphasises engagement over enforcement[6]. Indeed during the national lockdown period (27 March to 25 May) police in England and Wales issued only 17,039 Fixed Penalty Notices to enforce the coronavirus regulations[7]. This light-touch approach to enforcement did not go unnoticed by the public, with many describing an absence of enforcement. However, it is important to bear in mind that many of the reports and complaints from the public were as much about antisocial behaviour (ASB) as they were about public health. This is because low-level ASB such as house parties or other social gatherings, noise or abuse of shop staff proliferated as an unintended consequence of the restrictions.

Focus group participants perceived the tension between the need to impose more extensive enforcement of the restrictions, and the limited resources available to the police. Some participants mentioned how policing resources were stretched pre-COVID, and that the additional demand of policing the pandemic may lead to considerable trade-offs to strike the right balance:

"I think given how many more limitations [the police have] been dealing with, and they need to be watching group gatherings, household gatherings etc, I think they’ve been really stretched. I haven’t had any direct experiences seeing how well they’ve responded to some things but it seems like they’ve had a lot on their hands and they’re trying to do the best they can."

Female, 25-49, Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

[On the topic of child abuse] “There’s not enough police in the forces to do all that and then all the COVID things.”

Female, 18-25, Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

“I think the police should play a role in [track and trace], but I just don’t think they have enough people to be able to do it. Because from what I've seen, crime is around the same, and the police weren’t always able to deal with everything. And now they’ve added, with all the crime that was already happening... thousands of restaurants to look at, thousands of people going out every day to enforce it. It’s not like crime has gone down and then the police can now spend that half of their resources doing all the test and trace stuff. Doing all that. It just feels like it’s been added to their workload.”

Male, 18-24, Birmingham, Multiple ethnicity group

However, some groups had dissenting voices who were sceptical about the additional demand and believed that police should be making better use of the resources that were available during the COVID-19 period.

“I think they should have more [resources] now though in the sense that I know there’s a lot going on but there are no sporting events, there are no music events. There are no big massive events in that way that they have to police. So let’s say I’m stuck for the afternoon and having to look at a game at home, all those police that should be there, what are they doing now? They’re not having to go and worry about it.”

Male, 25-49, Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

Equally, people lacked an understanding of the principles used by the police to prioritise their response among competing demands. Some suggested the police should have focused on public disorder or the most persistent rule-breakers.

"[The neighbours] had just started doing a get-together with loads of their friends every Friday night. And then they started doing it one or two nights in the week because they weren’t working, but other people were, obviously. And it was like three o’clock in the morning, and you couldn’t sleep. And the noise was horrendous. And there were a lot of people in there. [After reporting it, the police] never came out, ever."

Female, 50+ group, London, Multiple ethnicity group

"I did end up telling about my neighbours. My wife, in the situation where she’s vulnerable... after three, four, five, six times of them constantly having people around, I did end up saying something, rang the number. And I did that twice and nothing happened so I’m not even convinced they [the police] did very much."

Male, 25-49, Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

It was recognised that people needed to take more responsibility in following the rules but there was some confusion expressed over what constituted law and what was government guidance, which may partly be a natural consequence of the discretionary approach taken by police. This not only created uncertainty on what to expect of them but likely further diminished the legal deterrent.

"Were those illegal raves really breaking the law? Were they actually breaking a law or was it guidelines?"

Male, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

There was near-unanimous support for the coronavirus regulations, reflecting other evidence on public attitudes. Surveys have found that 57 per cent of the public believe the UK was taken out of the national lockdown too quickly and 60 per cent believe that new measures should be introduced as law rather than guidance[8]. Many in our groups felt there was a need for more systematic and consistent enforcement from the outset to foster greater understanding and compliance from the public, drawing on the more stringent approach taken in other countries. For some this would involve more robust enforcement by police, but also greater clarity from the state as a whole as to what is expected of the public.

"... there was no structure for that though, was there? It’s not like in... I’ve got relatives in France who had to fill out a form every time they left the house, state what they were doing and where they’re going and all that. There was no... I didn’t... I can’t blame the police because I don’t think... There just wasn’t anything set up properly for them."

Female, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

"So like in Spain for example, police were literally on the streets. Forcing people to stay inside during quarantine and stuff like that. Which probably would have made quite a massive difference here."

Male, 18-24, Greater Manchester, Multiple ethnicity group

There were clear signs that the public wants to see the police robustly enforcing the law in order to protect public health.

"I think that’s why people do feel a bit angry against the police because it is like, everyone who disobeys the rules is causing us all to look to a future... [where] we haven’t got work, we can’t work, we’re going to be locked down. And you want them to stop that so that so that... Get everyone to behave so that we [do] not have to go through this again."

Female, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

None of our focus groups referenced the concerns expressed in some quarters during the early stages of lockdown about particular police tactics, such as the use of a drone to deter people from driving to beauty spots [9] or spot checks on shopping baskets to ensure people were only buying essential items [10]. Nor did these groups mention incidents where individual officers were seen to have misinterpreted their powers [11]. This apparent absence of concern about police overreach was in line with polling Crest commissioned in April which found broad support for the police approach overall with only 6 per cent of people feeling it had been too heavy-handed while 14 per cent wanting to see tougher action [12].

The fairness of the police response


Despite an overall preference for more robust enforcement across the focus groups, this sentiment was frequently qualified with an insistence on consistency and fairness in the application of the rules. Reflecting on general observations of policing activity, wide variation was described between different geographic locations. In some instances they felt unable to explain the observed differences in police activity between areas. Others perceived patterns in policing to have gone unchanged, with areas that were more highly policed before the crisis continuing to be highly policed despite more widespread rule-breaking. This gave rise to feelings that the same rule-breaking by people in more heavily policed areas was being unfairly or disproportionately penalised.

“It should just be the uniform rule for everyone. Keep it consistent throughout everyone. Not put it on specific areas. You’ve got to either be lenient with it, or not lenient with it.”

Male, 18-24, Birmingham, Multiple ethnicity group

"... in some places they were really heavy-handed. In [one borough] there were hordes of police stopping people up there and moving them along. And yet on [another], where it was just like crazy amount of people, they weren’t around. So, I just don’t understand how... Whether it’s different boroughs, or whatever, different police forces. It just seemed very uneven."

Female, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

"[Compared to my area where police are not normally very active, in another the police] were just having a field day and just bothering people, seeing if you’re social distancing. And if they can’t use the social distancing they’ll be like, “oh, well, we’ve had some suspicious things going on in your area”

Female, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

This frustration with variable levels of enforcement in different areas has interesting implications for the current policy of local lockdowns and a tier system. It is possible that this new set of policies will fuel this discontent. In adopting localised strategies on the basis of more objective measures such as infection rates, it de-emphasises the role of localised police decision-making, and introduces clearer laws and policies, to rationalise differential treatment. This may satisfy calls for fairness, so long as it is perceived as sufficiently legitimate and clear.

Furthermore, in four of our groups people raised - unprompted - incidents of alleged rule-breaking by public officials with several singling out the actions of the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser and the absence of any sanction. Some suggested this had undermined the legitimacy of the lockdown among the general public while others suggested it may have made it harder for the rules to be enforced subsequently.

"It’s like the Dominic Cummings thing... Why does he get one set of rules and we get another set? Everybody is in the same boat here... I don’t know what the police did. I don’t know if they did much in that. But, they probably didn’t do that much because he’s still living his life, doing what he’s doing. There was no punishment or anything. So, it just reinforces the divide."

Female, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

"I think we do remember what happened a few months ago with a certain advisor to government... and I think when people saw how he was treated differently to the general public with regards to adhering to the rules, I’m thinking the government probably felt ‘you know what, we can’t really be too heavy-handed on the general public with having all these rules when we ourselves aren’t managing our own house”

Female, 50+, London, Multiple ethnicity group

Racial disproportionality


The criminal justice system has long been criticised for discriminatory practices exemplified by uneven representation of people from different backgrounds in the system, most particularly there have been persistent and ongoing concerns about police discrimination against black and minority ethnic groups[13]. Objectively, there is evidence of a disproportionate number of Fixed Penalty Notices being issued to black and minority ethnic groups[14]. The response during the crisis acted to support or reinforce some pre-existing opinions on bias and uneven targeting by policing. Importantly, those who were already sceptical or anxious of the police indicated a heightened sensitivity in relation to these new police powers.

"I think like when people do have a police encounter, you’re very scared to like maybe record something or to say something out of line just in case like your punishment will be worse. So, whatever feelings you have you kind of have to keep it to yourself. Even if you’re being treated badly you have no one to report it to."

Female, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

“I don’t think my opinion has changed. It’s just confirmed what I already thought. Like, you’ve just given me the evidence. Now, everyone’s on the same platform, we’ve all got the same rules, don’t go out, and you’re still treating black people worse."

Male, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

Some described disproportionality in the use of police powers that was linked to race and ethnicity, as well as age and socio-economic status, with the rules generally bearing down more heavily on those communities that would be the focus of police activity in normal circumstances.

“We’ve still got... black people are more likely to be fined by police for breaking lockdown rules. Why is that the case?”

Male, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

“They’ve always got one rule for some and a different rule for how lockdown was when everyone was supposed to be in their houses the beaches were full, like, Southend beach there was a whole lot of people on the beach, but you can clearly see what ethnicity those people were. And then, there was someone else of black ethnicity who also had a beach party, but theirs was broadcast and they got fined and they were kind of like speaking down on them.”

Female, 18-24, London, All Black-British group

In the absence of clearly communicated rules the public apply their own interpretation of cues in their environment or in the media. A situation exacerbated in an era of post-truth in which participants expressed considerable mistrust in messaging from the media and government.

"... if they’re doing something that’s like explicitly violating lockdown rules, like go to your holiday home or whatever or you’re travelling hundreds of miles. Like, that’s a very clear thing that you can’t do. But, like I think the problem is that like minority ethnic people are being punished for just living their lives and following rules. It’s like you’re going out for a walk or whatever is a problem... It doesn’t suggest that black people and white people are being treated the same if white people are being held accountable for like quite extreme breaking of lockdown."

All Black-British group, female, 18-24, London

"I think they’re (the media) very defensive. I don’t think they’d ever say a bad word or say that the police are wrong in a certain way or acted in a certain manner. I just think that everyone has seen on social media on certain occasions their actions and how appalled everyone has been. So, I just think that, yes, the media try and cover things up, put papers over the cracks a lot of the time."

Male, 18-24 London, All Black-British group

"I felt like, when it came to obviously that whole BAME people arguing about Black Lives Matter situation, police was ready to be on horses. Yet, when it was white people then protesting, it was a different response. Likewise, with the people going to the beach was a different... They had police on horses when there was black people yet you’ve got 1,000 people on a beach and there's not even one policeman or even one horse."

Male, 18-24, Birmingham, Multiple ethnicity group



The police service entered the pandemic with an understandable concern not to ‘over-reach’ and risk undermining public confidence with an enforcement-heavy approach. Given the widespread negative publicity generated by isolated incidents or comments, the emphasis on the 4Es approach appeared prudent. However, the public in our focus groups felt the police were neither visible enough nor robust enough to deter rule-breaking. Unevenness in police visibility and interventions across different areas and communities was observed by many in our groups, and it raised concerns not only on effectiveness but also fairness, with some feeling the rules pressed harder on some communities than others. Fairness and transparency in enforcing the rules is essential for public buy-in and compliance.

That said, most stressed that they had confidence in the police or that their overall opinions had not changed as a result of the pandemic. It is, however, potentially significant that the minority who stated that their opinion of the police had become more negative included those who felt let down after reporting a breach and no action was taken. As the police continue to take a central role in managing the public health crisis, a perceived lack of effective enforcement may have consequences, with a loss of confidence in the response to rule breakers having a potential knock-on effect for confidence in the health restrictions. The result may be fewer reports from the public, less compliance and potentially greater transmission of coronavirus.

With thanks to Elisabeth Aitkenhead, Joe Caluori, and Jessica Lumley for their contributions.




[1] Smith, L.E., Amlot, R., Lambert, H., Oliver, I., Robin, C., Yardley, L. and Rubin, G.J. (2020)

Factors associated with adherence to self-isolation and lockdown measures in the UK; a

cross-sectional survey

[2] Census groups: Black / African / Caribbean / Black British / Mixed / Multiple ethnic

groups (White and Black Caribbean, White and Black African

[3] Innes, M. (2004) Signal crimes and signal disorders: Notes on deviance as communicative action. British Journal of Sociology 55(3):335-55

[4] Webster, R.K., Brooks, S.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S. and Rubin, G.J. (2020) How to improve adherence with quarantine: rapid review of the evidence. Public Health. 2020 May; 182: 163–169

[5] Jackson, J., Bradford, B., Hough, M., Myhill, A., Quinton, P. and Tyler, T.R. (2012) Why do

People Comply with the Law? Legitimacy and the Influence of Legal Institutions

[6] NPCC and College of Policing (2020) Policing briefing in response to coronavirus government legislation

[7] National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) (2020) Policing the pandemic: Detailed analysis on police enforcement of the Public Health Regulations and an assessment on disproportionality across ethnic groups

[14] NPCC (2020) Ibid


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