With the onset of COVID-19, the world as we know it has suddenly changed, and with it, the expected behaviour for many citizens worldwide. The UK, and a number of other countries, are currently in ‘lockdown’ in an attempt to deal with the pandemic.

The job of managing public compliance with the lockdown has been integrated into the policing mandate to maintain social order. Although the management and containment of the pandemic is predominantly a public health issue, the police are being called upon to ensure citizens comply with the measures set out for them. Consequently, police officers are in the unprecedented position of regulating the everyday aspects of citizens lives.

The nature and shape of the demand for policing has also been altered with the advent of the pandemic, with the existing pressures that policing faces exacerbated by the requirement for members of the public to comply with new social distancing and self-isolation measures. Although many forces report a drop in emergency calls, there has been a marked increase in certain types of crime, such as domestic violence incidents since the lockdown was implemented. During the pandemic police are still expected to deal with criminal acts caused by an array of complex and overlapping social factors, with the threat of the virus also serving as an ever-present and additional pressure.

The primary function of policing has always been order maintenance, part of which is the regulation and management of the use of public spaces by citizens. This is primarily achieved via policing by consent, the success of which is reflected in the public’s willingness to comply with the rules and regulations of the society in which they live. Although policing by consent has been tested in recent weeks, it is still possible for police to secure and ensure consent during this period of lockdown.

The term lockdown itself is inherently suggestive of a lack of public consent in the first place, as individuals are no longer free to live their daily lives as they please. This is exacerbated by the fact that as of yet, there is no specified timeframe for when the lockdown is due to end. Additionally, there is also heightened  public concern  about the state excessively curbing and controlling the movements of its citizens. Media reports of excessive enforcement of the new legislation act to undermine confidence in the police, as they are perceived to be draconian and overreaching their powers in the enforcement of their mandate. This could become problematic as continued public support will be essential for policing the pandemic to be successful. Isolation fatigue is a genuine concern as public willingness to comply with the lockdown may decrease and consent will be increasingly necessary the longer the lockdown period is extended for.

Procedural justice remains the key approach through which police can ensure public compliance and consent in these uncertain and troubling times. Research has shown that people are more likely to adhere to rules and regulations when they believe they have been applied in a fair and consistent manner, even if those rules ultimately result in an adverse outcome for them. The Peelian principles that underpin policing require officers  to engage, explain and encourage members of the public during interactions, with the use of force remaining as a last resort. It appears that the police are observing these principles, with recent guidance from the College of Policing reminding officers they must be consistent and coordinated in their approach to the public, with professionalism, ‘conversation and explanation’ as key tenets in their approach. In line with the procedural justice approach, police actions should be subject to constant and thoughtful review by policing organisations in order to ensure their approach is consistent and fair to citizens. This appears to be taking place at present, with police forces reviewing their actions after strong negative feedback from the public for activities such as dyeing natural lakes in order to deter potential visitors. This approach may also be particularly useful when dealing with those communities who are less likely to comply with social distancing measures and is likely to be a central concern for policing organisations going forward. 

The alternative approach, policing by enforcement, is impractical and unlikely to succeed. To effectively enforce a lockdown would require high visibility and an ever-present police force, but officers do not have the capacity to do this, due to the decrease in police numbers over recent years. Policing by enforcement  would be likely to strain the relationship between public and the police and would potentially undermine future willingness to comply.

A procedurally just approach to policing the public during these unprecedented times can be further supported by internal policing practices that mirror this perspective. Officers are inherently at an increased risk for contracting and transmitting the virus due to the nature of work they do. Their role involves regularly encountering multiple members of the public and social distancing cannot always be maintained, especially in situations where physical force is utilised. Awareness of this predicament may place increased stress on officers. Fair and consistent treatment by forces, bolstered by the timely sharing of information would help to sustain an open and transparent working environment, which in turn would provide reassurance about the need for officers to undertake these activities in times of uncertainty. This can be supported by forces ensuring officers have the information they need in order to provide the service to the public that they require. Chief officers could also signal their support by providing reassurance to officers that they can use own initiative and problem-solving abilities to effectively police the pandemic.

Securing and maintaining public confidence in policing is key to successful order maintenance, and this can be achieved by the tools officers already utilise within their everyday roles. Conversation and explanation have always been crucial first steps in obtaining public compliance, and these are of increased importance during the pandemic. Containing the outbreak is of paramount importance, but the way in which this is achieved also matters, and the actions that police undertake during this time will determine how they are valued and viewed by society. Policing organisations need to keep in mind that it is important to maintain their relationship with the public for the future – the pandemic will hopefully end in the course of time, but the police will be required by society for many years to come.

By Kathryn Farrow, DPhil Candidate, Centre for Criminology.