What the Coronavirus has taught us about community policing

Dr Megan O’Neill

It is of course now well-trodden ground to observe that this is an unprecedented time for policing across the world. While there have been pandemics in the past, none have affected the global population in quite this way before and thus brought similar global policing challenges to bear all at once. In many countries police forces find themselves with a responsibility to enforce extreme restrictions on freedom of movement, often at short notice and with no direct prior learning on which to draw.

The exact nature of the policing challenge being addressed in the early stages of the pandemic has varied from one country and one legal and policing system to another. Some jurisdictions have used much more restrictive and enforcement-based responses, such as Singapore and China. Others have augmented policing with strict systems of documentation, often through technologically-based forms and certificates which indicate a person’s permission to leave the home or to attend work, such as in France. The response in the UK, which operates a system of ‘policing by consent’, has been less authoritarian than these. This is not to assume that the policing response in this country has been uniform, far from it. Some areas of the country have shown much higher rates of issuing fines or conducting arrests than others. In the main, we have not witnessed the extreme examples of violent clashes between the police and the public as seen in some other areas.

What is important about the experience of policing the current and future social restrictions in the UK is that while there was no existing blueprint for how exactly to do this, there was a very well established and familiar guide – community policing. I will explore below how the approach taken by the UK government towards the pandemic heightened the need for policing engagement and negotiation with the general public, key elements of community policing. And it is precisely community policing which has been hardest hit by the police funding reductions of the past 10 years.

UK government sets the stage

Throughout its response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK government has issued advice and guidance which does not match up with, and sometimes precedes, legislation. From early advice to ‘stay away’ from pubs and restaurants, even when they were still open legally, to telling people they could only go out to exercise once a day after ‘lockdown’ commenced despite the legislation not indicating the frequency with which a person could leave the house. In more recent weeks we have seen a situation where the government guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is taking a different path to that of England, opening up the potential for further confusion among the public and among practitioners as to what is and is not allowed and where.

These, and other elements of the measures to restrict the movement of the public and thus reduce the rate of virus transmission, placed the police forces of the UK in very awkward positions. Do they insist on adherence to the guidance or enforce the law? If they opt for the former, on what grounds can they maintain this position in the face of challenge from a member of the public? If the opt for the latter, how do they respond to the numerous reports from eagle-eyed neighbours about frequent outings from the house next door? The College of Policing produced guidance to attempt to address this conflict, highlighting that only the law was enforceable, but which avoided suggesting that breaches of health guidance could be ignored. In fact, many police forces established online systems where suspected breaches of coronavirus restrictions can be reported, including the un-enforceable ones.

Even without conflicting and confusing government policy, guidance and legislation, policing the pandemic was always going to be a difficult task. These factors have meant that police forces across the country needed to find a way to gain the support of the public to being policed in a manner never seen before, and which contravened all previous understandings as to what ‘normal’ life is like and the extent of legitimate police control of that life. How best to do this?

The College of Policing, the four ‘Es’ and community policing by the back door

In order to avoid multiple interpretations of the new restrictions and how best to police the behaviour of the public, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council rapidly developed the ‘Four Es’ for policing the pandemic. These are:

  • Engage
  • Explain
  • Encourage
  • Enforce

That ‘enforce’ is the last ‘E’ is significant. Compelling people to comply with the restrictions, either through harsh warnings, the use of force, fines or arrest was to be an absolute last resort (although it is difficult to know the extent to which this was followed based on the data alone). The first three ‘Es’ build on the ethos of policing by consent, a hallmark of British policing: that as much as possible, the police will work with the public to keep them safe in a manner that they can accept as appropriate. The picture from the centre of policing was clear – do not attempt to insist on the letter of the law in all cases, but focus on the general spirit of the endeavour at hand.

The first three ‘Es’ should be familiar to anyone who has ever undertaken any study, observation or execution of community policing. Engaging, explaining and encouraging are all core to working within a community policing framework. This method of policing sees the police as one of many partners in a community and who will undertake consultation and negotiation with residents and other service providers to find the best policing ‘fit’ within that community. While enforcement is of course necessary on occasion, community policing will work to prevent those situations and attempt to solve local problems before they escalate.

However, practitioners and scholars of policing in the UK will also be aware that the funding for policing has been subject to significant reductions over the past ten years, such that the size of the police officer workforce in England and Wales has dropped 14% since 2009. In this context, it is not surprising that many Police and Crime Commissioners as well as Chief Constables have chosen to focus their dwindling resources on the more reactive and emergency-oriented aspects of policing. This has led in some places to an almost complete abandonment of community policing, culminating in Norfolk Constabulary removing the role of Police Community Support Officer entirely.

We are thus in a position where the key policing skills, strategies and roles needed to ensure public compliance in a severe public health emergency are precisely those skills, strategies and roles deemed ‘expendable’ only a few short months ago. Community policing should now come into its own but, with 10 years of gradual neglect behind it, will this be possible? In the early stages of the lockdown in particular, stories abounded of over-zealous policing of the new restrictions. This could be due to a convergence of a number of factors, such as misunderstandings about the detail of the legislation, deficiencies in awareness of the public health guidance and lack of training due to the speed at which the measures came into effect. However, considering the fracturing and de-funding of community policing since 2010, an additional explanation could be a significant lack of skill and experience in using engagement-oriented policing methods in front-line operational roles. This kind of policing must be learned and refined over time through both training and first-hand experience, and is especially important when faced with a confused and anxious public. As we have seen from the examples of other countries, enforcement-based methods are counter-productive and could even risk further transmission of the virus due the close personal contact involved in the use of force.

Many anticipate that life in the UK will never return to ‘normal’, or the exact normal that we knew before. For me, while some aspects of the ‘new normal’ are indeed daunting, a renewed investment and focus on community policing in the UK would be a very welcome and long overdue addition to new normal. What the current crisis has demonstrated quite clearly is that community policing and the engagement-focused methods on which it is based are far from ‘expendable’ in policing.

Dr Megan O’Neill is an Associate Director (Police Community Relations Network) of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and a Reader in the School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee. Email: m.oneill@dundee.ac.uk. Twitter: @drmeganoneill

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