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COVID-19: Policing a Pandemic

The challenges of maintaining law and order during the Coronavirus response.

"The Coronavirus pandemic represents the biggest challenge to UK police since the Second World War" according to Richard Walton, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command at the Metropolitan Police. The paper ‘Policing a Pandemic’, outlined below, is part of a new series from Policy Exchange, examining the policy impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

It notes that some aspects of criminal behaviour are likely to decrease due to government induced measures, including social distancing and the closure of, pubs, bars and clubs. With this, for example, we could see a decline in alcohol-related disorder, in turn, reducing pressure on emergency response teams. The impact on crime will depend on crime type and the severity of the virus. However, the paper does warn that a minority could exploit the pandemic for criminal purposes and therefore sets out new challenges that could be faced by the Police alongside a set of key recommendations.

Additional support from military and third sector will be used as the pandemic peaks in the UK. Inter-agency collaboration will be vital for an effective response to the effects of the pandemic. With a decrease in certain crime types, we will also see an rise in other crimes such as domestic violence as self-isolation increases opportunities for individuals to abuse victims; this will have repercussions on demand for emergency response teams.

Undoubtedly there is uncertainty surrounding the nature of the crisis, however, some modelling can be done based on behaviours witnessed during previous times of national crisis. This is outlined in the paper.

‘’It will be important for the Home Office and police leaders to strike the correct balance between the amount of police resources diverted to aid health workers and the health service, and carefully monitoring the capacity of the police service to ensure that it is able to deal with public order, crime and enforcement of quarantine measures’’

The paper explores Emergency Crisis Management and the multi-agency response, drawing on past experiences in responding to, for example, UK terror attacks and the fire at Grenfell Tower. It also touches on the UK governments Coronavirus action plan, which include the four-stage strategy – Contain, Delay, Research, Mitigate.

An overview of The National Police Coordination Centre (NPoCC) is provided and the role they play in responding to a national crisis and supporting the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in COBR. The police response is described as ‘‘working with the Government and Public Health England in the response to the Covid-19 Coronavirus. Police forces are working with their partners at a local level to plan for, and respond to, issues raised by Covid-19. The national police Coronavirus strategy will focus on supporting the Government’s national Coronavirus Strategy, the Health Service and Public Health England’’. The paper goes on to highlight where police resources will be required, contingency planning and the use of military resource.

When looking at the policing response to the pandemic, it is important to highlight the vital role Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNTs) play. They provide street presence, address local issues and challenge anti-social behaviour. However, the paper outlines the inevitability of SNTs being stripped back and tasked to emergency response. Maintaining police presence in neighbourhoods where possible is vital in providing local reassurance and assistance where required; especially to those most vulnerable. The paper goes on to explain SNT resource and the vital role local community schemes can play in supporting local policing.

Alongside this, the paper draws on key issues surrounding police forces keeping the peace, domestic violence and street level violence, and acquisitive crimeOnline fraud and internet crime are explored alongside street protest, homelessness, border security and the criminal justice system. The UK criminal justice system will come under increasing pressure as the crisis develops, placing strain on the courts, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and prisons. On Tuesday 17th March, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon said it was: ‘‘not realistic’ to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction’, but it was of ‘vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt’

The paper concludes “the Coronavirus crisis will stretch the capabilities and capacity of the emergency response services but they will be able deliver a coordinated professional response”. There will be a profound impact on crime and law and order; but it will be short term and not of the same severity or complexity as the health service. There will be pressures on families and local communities due to the government induced measures. The investigation of serious crimes will continue but less serious crimes will result in a reduced service and response. ‘’The police service will have the capacity and capability to deal with the high demands emanating from the crisis, the impact on law and order and on society more broadly’’.

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