Coronavirus: Majority of British public support police response, but third think it ‘has gone too far’ in some cases

Lizzie Dearden
Officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists to check that their travel is 'essential' in York: AFP/Getty

The majority of the British public support the police response to coronavirus, but a third think some officers have “gone too far”, new research shows.

Despite controversy over tactics including filming walkers with drones and putting up roadblocks to enforce the lockdown, three quarters of respondents to a YouGov survey gave their full or qualified backing to police.

Crest Advisory, a consultancy that commissioned the survey, said it showed “broad overall support for the police approach to enforcing the lockdown, albeit with some interesting caveats and hints at the limits of public consent”.

Overall, 42 per cent of people said they fully supported the current police approach and 32 per cent said they supported it “but think in some cases it has gone too far”.

Only 6 per cent said they had been too heavy-handed, while 14 per cent called for tougher action.

The vast majority of respondents were comfortable with police asking people why they were outside, and arresting and fining people for breaching the lockdown.

Half supported the use of drones to film people making unnecessary journeys and 70 per cent were comfortable with police roadblocks.

Just over half of people would happily be instructed to report others, and 50 per cent said they would back the use of facial recognition in public places to identify people breaking the rules.

But only 38 per cent supported “naming and shaming” online and the majority were uncomfortable with using social media accounts to identify people breaching lockdowns.

Overall, women were more supportive than men of the current police approach, and 18 to 24-year-olds olds were less likely to be fully supportive.

Officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists to check that their travel is ‘essential’ in York (AFP/Getty)

London was the least supportive region overall, with Scotland the most supportive.

“It seems to us that these figures showing public support for police enforcement of the lockdown is not a blank cheque,” a report by Crest Advisory said.

“People are, broadly speaking, comfortable with face-to-face police enforcement up to and including tactics such as roadblocks, which are themselves highly unusual.

“However, public support starts to fall when people are asked about more remote, less human tactics such as the use of social media to name and shame those flouting social distancing rules, or new technology such as drones to photograph people.”

Researchers said attitudes could shift if the government changes its policy or frustration grows at the economic and social impact of lockdown.

Crest Advisory concluded that while a small proportion of the public surveyed wanted tougher action, “in order to maintain support, the police should continue its current approach of working with communities in line with the principles of policing by consent”.

The findings mirror official government advice drawn up in February, which called for police to “support rather than control” the public in order to guard against potential unrest.

Officers have the power to arrest or fine people for breaking new Health Protection Regulations, but have been instructed to use enforcement as a “last resort”.

New guidance has been issued by the College of Policing over the separate Coronavirus Act 2020, after it was wrongly used to arrest a woman “loitering” at a railway station and fine her £660 for an offence she did not commit.

Ministers have suggested that a stricter lockdown could be imposed if people flout rules banning public gatherings of more than two people and leaving home “without reasonable excuse”.

Ché Donald, vice chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said officers want people to voluntarily comply with the rules so the new powers do not have to be used.

“In an ideal world we don’t need to be doing roadblocks or telling people to get out of parks because they’re following the guidance,” he told The Independent.

“Policing was never designed for this and cops that are out there have never had to use this kind of power before.

“We don’t want to see it creeping, we want to get it done with a consenting public who recognise the risk and the part they have to play.

“If we go into a more severe lockdown, we start looking at a very different picture and I don’t want us to get there.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our police are doing a fantastic job keeping us safe and protecting the NHS by ensuring the public stay at home, and using emergency powers only when necessary.

“We’re pleased that the vast majority of the public support the police in their approach.”

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