Author: Dr Francesc Guillén, INT
Dr Francesc Guillén is a CCI Partner working for the Department d’interior (INT) in Barcelona, Spain. Spain has become one of the biggest Covid-19 hotspots in Europe, here Dr Guillén gives an account of policing during a global pandemic.
Our generation has never experienced such an extraordinary situation as the current emergency. We have all read and heard much about the Second World War and the so-called Spanish Flu in history books and films, but we had no direct experience of these crises. Although we tend to plan and predict everything, nobody had foreseen this pandemic. All our securities are gone: people live in uncertainty about their short- and mid-term futures. How many will become ill? How many will die? How will the public health system cope with this emergency? When will we be able to move freely again? How seriously will our privacy be violated in the future in order to prevent new pandemics? What is going to happen to our livelihoods and our businesses? How long will state aid last? And there are so many more questions...
The first consequence of the restrictions placed on the population due to the pandemic, is the widespread panic and fear. When, within as part of the CCI project, we have analysed a lot of evidence that points to the importance of feelings of insecurity in current times, and this is especially true during the Covid-19 crisis. We should monitor people’s uncertainty and fear, in order to prevent them from increasing the risk of the pandemic and to make them resilient enough to go about their lives with the minimum amount of danger as possible. Terrified people tend to behave irrationally and can hamper the necessary social cohesion to overcome the current circumstances.
1. Police, the front-line public actor.
Police Services are no longer just law enforcement agencies. Most relevant research suggests that police should be perceived as a provider of safety services in order to maintain reasonable levels of quality of life. Since they are not the only safety provider (we talk about plural policing), it is important they are able to work in collaboration with other public and private actors. Therefore, the police have an important role in coaching the public, and guiding their community through the current troubled times.
Since panic is the crisis’ first public response, it is important that people can see the police taking control, patrolling the cities and informing the citizens. In a situation of fear, somebody needs to take charge in order to prevent disorder. Although the police cannot stop the pandemic, as a symbol of the State they contribute to public safety with their presence and communications. Similarly, from the public’s point of view, if a public body is in charge they will mitigate any subsequent risks associated with the ongoing crisis. So, from various points of view, the police foster public reassurance and resilience, which is very much needed in this climate.
2. The enforcement of confinement rules. What should the role of the police be?
Restrictions on public liberties have been established all over the world in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Since the core problem is the extremely contagious character of the virus, contact between people should be avoided as much as possible. However, these levels of restrictions vary widely. Most European countries have limited freedom of movement and implemented social distancing, but there are countries where people still can go out for some fresh air and exercise, whereas in Sweden activity is almost normal, with some exceptions. Since not all citizens accept and follow those restrictions, it is advisable that somebody (the police) enforce them. Some countries have even resorted to using their army to monitor people’s movements, which may be seen as irregular in times of peace, or even a weakness of the state. In civilian regimes it seems that the proper decision is to put the enforcement of confinement rules in the hands of the police. Arguably, in a deep-rooted democratic society, every citizen should be responsible and accountable for adhering to the current restrictions and guidelines in order to support social health.
Police are responsible to ensure people follow legal guidelines concerning confinement, and, in cases of non-compliance, should be able to question, fine or even arrest those who refuse. Legally speaking, there is no doubt that since there is a public good behind the restrictions (pandemic control and decrease of the death toll), they have been implemented following the principles of the rule of law. In Italy and Spain thousands of people have been reported to have violated the restrictions by the police, which confirms that voluntary compliance is not always guaranteed. However, a large number of police reports can result in significant fines for offenders, but are not always the best solution, although legally possible and acceptable.
Police should strive to ensure compliance to movement restrictions rather than reporting offenders for violating the restrictions. Police should, as much as possible, explain to people the reasons for the restrictions, to convince them to consider their behaviour in order to abide by them. They should try some form of voluntary compliance to the law. Only in cases where this is completely impossible, should the police report and arrest. Otherwise Police are more likely to be a source of fear rather than a source of security. Furthermore, people's cooperation with the police is extremely necessary today, and it is unlikely to happen if citizens see the police as an enemy, as a body interested only in law enforcement but not in their concerns.
Research within the CCI project framework has shown that a good police-community relationship improves not only police legitimacy but also the subjective security of citizens (the feelings of security), which is highly necessary in current times. Police officers shouldn’t forget that, at least not if they are truly interested in people’s safety.
3. Crime under confinement: Police should guide and warn.
Confinement causes an extreme impact on crime. Since routines have changed dramatically, many of the usual crime opportunities no longer exist. Empty streets make it difficult to rob or assault someone. Full apartments and houses are not likely to suffer from burglaries (except in second homes). So, most of most common crimes will significantly decrease due to lack of opportunity. However, predatory crimes are not going to disappear, criminals are going to adapt to new circumstances in order to make a living. Now the opportunities will be where people currently are and related to their current needs. So now where are people most of time? On-line, working, shopping or contacting friends and relatives. What are people looking for? Goods that may help to protect themselves from the disease, whether it be medicines or cleaning products (for disinfection). Consequently, cyber criminality, frauds, and domestic violence will increase dramatically in recent times.
Police should explore new crime trends and inform people about the new risks and how they can behave to mitigate them. This is quite a valuable service which the police should provide people with. In large cities people are aware of the presence of pick pockets on the underground, but they are not really aware about cyber criminality or on-line risks. Police must also detect the high risk of domestic violence at home in order to prevent this through communication and alternative approaches. In other words, the police should protect their communities from the new crime trends.
4. Conclusion: Covid19 times demand Police that support resilience.
Covid-19 is an unprecedented time of risk and uncertainty, that not only puts people and their health at risk, but makes them feel very uncomfortable and unsafe, not only by the pandemic but also by the unforeseen consequences. Police should play the role of a protective guardian, that advises the public to prevent unnecessary risks, forces them when they refuse, and provides support, guidance and confidence though this chaotic landscape. They can only be successful if the public still considers that the police are on their side. Otherwise, they will only be able to provide law enforcement, which, although highly relevant, is not the primary need at this time.