Restorative policing during the COVID pandemic
This is a blog by Trevor Watson, the Policy and Campaigns Director of Why me?
Recent police tactics to enforce social distancing regulations have challenged the principles of policing by consent. These principles are based on the idea that police power comes from public cooperation rather than fear, due to police having the approval, respect and affection of the general public. But complaints of overzealous enforcement, including police forces fining individuals £60 for buying non-essential goods, and for driving “due to boredom”, has led to negative press coverage. Many people are unhappy with the approach taken by some police forces.
Of course, we need to be understanding of the difficult situation which police find themselves in. Senior police officers have had to quickly create guidelines for officers to follow, which have indicated that persuading and educating the public should be the primary goal rather than resorting to enforcement. But inconsistent policing approaches have always existed. This is particularly evident in roads policing which has often been applied by individual forces in different ways. Examples include use of speed cameras and proactive tactics to identify drink drivers and phone users.
So where does policing restoratively fit in with policing by consent?
It is generally accepted that a restorative approach would include a focus on responsibility, apology and repairing the harm. Restorative processes generally involve dialogue, negotiation and interpersonal processes. Given these principles, one might legitimately challenge Derbyshire police’s use of drones to impose fines on walkers by identifying them through their number plates. Such a tactic is surely more akin to an authoritarian approach where the focus is upon rule breaking and punishment. We share the concerns of many other groups, that this increased power for police to crack down on perceived rule breaking could disproportionately impact minority communities. Shadae Cazzeau, head of Policy at EQUAL, has discussed this on BBC Radio.
Restorative policing fits in much better with the principle of policing by consent. These social distancing laws are brand new, as are the reasons that they are so important. Some people don’t fully appreciate the reasons that it is so important to stay at home, or what they are and aren’t still allowed to do. There was much public scorn of the so-called “Covidiots” who defied Government advice last weekend by heading to public parks. But many of these people were trying to do the right thing and got it wrong, or didn’t appreciate that sunbathing in the park – for example – was not appropriate during the current crisis. Restorative policing would involve an officer approaching a sunbather and explaining to them why their actions are against new Government laws, and what the consequences of their behaviour could be. The officer would listen to the person’s explanation and not assume that they must be flouting these new laws deliberately or uncaringly. This kind of policing is a common sense approach to a sensitive situation where many members of the public are feeling vulnerable. We are confident that the majority of people would respond positively to this style of policing, and would change their behaviour in the future.
These laws are new, unprecedented and confusing for many people. Restorative policing means appreciating this, and working to establish public consent to follow them.