Since the beginning of the UK’s lockdown on the 24th of March, public health concerns have included the fact that police forces are not observing social distancing and PPE guidelines whilst they go about their work. The rise in rates of stop and search and in racial disparity in the capital throughout April and May 2020 must urgently be addressed.
COVID19 has disproportionately impacted people of colour and black people in particular, not unconnected from the War on Drugs. In April 2020, when the UK was under its fullest lockdown, the Metropolitan Police carried out 30,608 searches in London, of which 70 per cent were for drugs. This number of searches carried out is an increase of 26 per cent on the previous month and is the highest rate of the use of these powers in at least 2 years.
The rate of searches of black people increased from 7.2 per 1000 in March to 9.3 per 1000 in April, with black people stopped and searched at 4 times the rate of white people. Disturbingly, the highest rate of searches are occurring in boroughs suffering the highest rate of COVID19 deaths.
While it is difficult to ascertain whether there is a causal link between these two factors, it is safe to say that with the many vulnerable people the police come into contact with, there is a risk of spreading the virus and measures to protect the public from the risk of infection by police should be taken. But as usual, the over-policed are under-protected.
These figures not only highlight an abuse of power from police during a pandemic, but a lack of due process in a context where BAME people are four times more likely to contract the virus. Policing during a pandemic, coupled with increased racial disparity, is putting all people, and BAME communities in particular, at risk.
The boroughs with the highest proportion of stop and searches were Westminster, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Southwark with Tower Hamlets and Newham, among them the top five boroughs with the highest number of reported deaths related to COVID-19. Class and ethnicity are key factors in relation to Newham and Tower Hamlets specifically; some of the poorest areas in the UK while also being some of the most ethnically diverse.
In April, StopWatch UK acknowledged that police have a responsibility to ensure that the public trust them during the pandemic: “During a global pandemic it is shocking to witness the police place so much of its resources on stop and search. Drug laws are being used selectively to penalise and intrude into people’s lives. This blatant over policing of BAME communities must not be tolerated; I encourage people to report and challenge any unfair policing encounter they may have experienced or witnessed.,” Katrina Ffrench, Chief executive says.
At this time and while we collectively strive to contain the virus and the risk of a second wave, especially as the lockdown begins to ease in the coming weeks, the police should cease the criminalisation of drug possession, use and distribution and observe the public health approach they were advised to take by Public Health England as early as the 5th of February 2020.
The Coronavirus Act
Three days after the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, the government passed a set of regulations that gave police forces across the country the power to fine people not following the new rules. The Coronavirus Act and all that it entails has been miscommunicated throughout the media and by the government, with large numbers of the public still unsure what the rules are and thus how to follow them.
A summary of the powers extended to police in the Coronavirus Act:
Police should obtain advice from a public health officer when considering whether they have reasonable grounds to suspect someone is infectious. Details of what constitutes reasonable grounds can be found in the full Coronavirus Act brief. There are five main summary offences created by the legislation. These offences are punishable on summary conviction (magistrates' court) by a fine not exceeding £1,000.
A person commits an offence if they:
fail without reasonable excuse to comply with any direction, reasonable instruction, requirement or restriction
abscond, or attempt to abscond, while being removed to or kept at a place of detention or isolation
knowingly provide false or misleading information in response to a requirement to provide information
obstruct a person who is exercising or attempting to exercise a power
fail without reasonable excuse to ensure that a child they have responsibility for complies with any direction, instruction, requirement or restriction given to or imposed on the child, or to provide such information and assistance in relation to the child as is reasonably necessary and practicable in the circumstances
The racially disproportionate application of the law is not unique to U.K. policing, nor to stop and search powers alone. Last week, Liberty published findings that showed, amongst other things, that:
- “Between 27 March and 11 May, English police forces handed out 13,445 of the fines, also known as Fixed Penalty Notices [… P]eople of colour were 54% more likely to be fined than white people…”
- “One of the first uses of police powers under the Coronavirus Act, which is a separate piece of legislation to that covering the fines, was used incorrectly against a black woman, Marie Dinou.”
- “As many as 2,957 fines may have gone to people of colour, a 90% increase on the 1,557 that would have been proportionate.”
It is also pertinent to add that many people are not being protected by the increase of police powers under the Coronavirus Act, take for example Belly Mujinga, a railway ticket office worker who fatally contracted Covid-19 after being spat at while on duty, whose case has now been closed by the British Transport Police.
Elsewhere in the world, we’ve seen reports of police failing to observe social distancing and criminalising people heavily and violent for drugs. Drug detention centres are still open across the world despite the UN urging governments to close them. Footage emerged earlier this month of an NYPD assaulting a person of colour. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Duterte’s fatal approach to enforcing lockdown has led to police shooting people in the street for flouting rules. Somewhat remarkably, gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have been calling for curfews to control and contain the spread of the virus, since the government has failed to act.