How will the enhancement of police powers in light of Covid-19 impact on BAME communities?
The worldwide Corona pandemic and the UK government’s response to it has impacted every aspect of our lives, from the way we work (from home), to the way we shake hands (the Corona elbow bump) to the way we socialise (we don’t).
Back in January of 2020 it was a health crisis taking place in China. Then the virus came to Europe but was concentrated in Italy. It wasn’t until March 2020 that the UK government forced us to take the crisis more seriously by issuing instructions for certain businesses to close and limiting the degree that the general public could interact, recommending working from home, social distancing, and even self- isolation for the more vulnerable.
But for those of us who work in the area of civil liberties and the criminal justice system, alarm bells started ringing when the government announced new enhanced powers for the law enforcement officers. The proposed powers were outlined in a 329-page emergency bill.
Under new laws public health officers, police and immigration officers will be able to direct people suspected of being infected to places where they can be screened for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). If necessary, these officials will have the power to hold suspected patients for screening rather than simply directing them there.
In explanatory notes provided with the bill, the government says “public health officers, constables and (in some circumstances) immigration officers” will be granted the means to enforce “sensible public health restrictions…where necessary and proportionate.” This includes returning people to places they have been required to stay.
In one of his daily addresses to the nation, (a regular feature of life under COVID19) the Prime Minister pleaded with people to stay at home, and indicated that the Police would have power to force people to do so, if they didn’t comply.
We have already seen news footage of Chinese and Italian cities in complete lock-down with the police stopping people wandering the streets and demanding proof of their need to travel. Images of the police stopping black men on the streets and demanding to see their documents brings back horrible memories of apartheid-era South Africa.
While EQUAL recognises the need to use police powers to ensure compliance with social distancing policies and to control the spread of the virus, we are concerned about the impact this may have on disproportionality in policing.
It is unclear how these encounters will be recorded or whether they will be recorded at all. Historically statistics show that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. With a lack of clear guidance on these proposed enhanced powers there is a concern that this disproportionality will only increase.
The police statistics April 2018/19 show that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups made up 22% of police use of force incidents despite only making up 5.5% of the population. An increase in power, no requirement of suspicion and a lack of trust in the police from BAME communities is potentially a recipe for disaster.
Commenting on The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, given royal assent this week, Shadae Cazeau, EQUAL’s Head of Policy said at the time,
“Without knowing how officers will record these encounters with members of the public it will be difficult to assess how this may impact upon disproportionality. There is already a lack of data more generally in policing and we are concerned that this may further affect trust between BAME communities and the police.
There is also a huge risk in using officers to assess potential coronavirus carriers; this is again vulnerable to abuse particularly given the grave consequences, including detention in custody and/or a fine of up to £1000.
It is concerning that there will be little way of knowing whether those detained failed to self-isolate or just didn’t realise they were carrying the virus if they are at all. The risks to already over policed BAME communities are ominous and the power to disperse, stop and engage with communities without the safeguards of the usual protocols has the potential to lead to further abuses of power.”
And her concerns at the time were proved well founded. Despite the drop in crime rates as the first lockdown came into effect, stop and search practices ‘surged’, with stop and search rates more than doubling in May 2021 compared with the previous year, and a staggering 21,950 searches of young Black men taking place in London alone during the first period of lockdown. Black people in London were ‘up to over 11 times’ more likely to be stopped than white people, and the disparity was even higher elsewhere.