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Is anyone the Covid police?

The proposed ‘Covid-19 secure marshals’ as proposed by the Government yesterday – though only to cover England, as the other countries in the UK can do differently – was most interesting, because enforcement of the necessary, indeed life and death, rules during the coronavirus pandemic is one of the two strange non-events of the months so far, writes Mark Rowe.

The other strange non-event is the non-take-up by the authorities of volunteers, though it has long been a British tradition to volunteer, for all manner of things, whether first aid, as ambassadors at the London 2012 Olympics, or indeed in policing, with special constables. The state has a tradition of reaching for volunteers in an emergency, such as civil defence and air raid precautions, before the 1939-45 war and during the Cold War; because volunteers are keen, and cheap.

When in late July central government brought in a rule that shoppers must wear masks in shops and shopping malls, although such a rule was not made in earlier months when the coronavirus in the UK was killing near 1000 a day, it was striking that retailers and police alike avoided responsibility for enforcing the rule. They had several reasons. First, it’s self-evident that the rules to reduce the risk of spreading and catching the coronavirus have to be self-policed. Yet this will not do, because in terms of social structure that would be (in its ideal form) anarchy, an idealistic assumption that everyone knows the right things to do, and does them without need of a coercive authority. Why then does any supermarket have a member of staff on the door? Unlicensed musical events, due to the shuttering of night-clubs, have been so widespread that police have shortened them to UMEs. No-one, let alone someone kept awake at night by dance music, has suggested that young people going to block parties or raves in parks ought really to self-police.

There is a general, non-covid requirement on us all to self-police but equally it only goes so far. Only a fool would leave his car or house door open, and trust in the state police to keep it from theft. Yet nor, if you take reasonable precautions, such as lock your car and keep the keys safe, are you expected to do all your own policing; if property is stolen, you turn to the police, even if only to get a crime number to pass to the insurance company.

There lies the problem, that like so many existed before the pandemic; just as Prof Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research, who tracks retail job losses and retailer closures, makes the point that high streets were in crisis before the virus struck. In this case, Britain before Covid-19 had a problem with enforcing the law against so-called low-level crime and nuisances, such as messing dogs, begging, drunkenness in public, littering and spitting, and shoplifting. Hence over a generation Labour and Conservative governments alike have moved away from prosecuting such offenders in courts, and instead invented ASBOs, criminal behaviour orders, PSPOs, and so on; while not apparently making the least difference to the volume of such crimes. Indeed, precisely because such crimes have been rocketing, the impulse of the police and politicians has been ‘demand reduction’, cynically to make it harder for such crimes to be reported, and therefore on the books and a political issue.

Take theft from shops. What is the point, retail staff in general and loss prevention officers in particular, ask themselves, of holding a thief in the shop – at a risk of the thief flaring up violently, and during the pandemic claiming they are carrying the virus and spitting – when it will take police an hour to attend to take the thief into custody, or police never arrive at all? As Prof Bamfield, an authority also on retail loss prevention and civil recovery, said years ago, retail theft has in effect been de-criminalised. Just as recent decades have seen a widespread weakening of civil society, so this de-criminalising of theft from high streets means that civil society – retailers, councils – cannot suddenly ramp up enforcement of ‘covid criminals’ any more than they can fine people for littering or street-drinking.

The Covid-19 pandemic does have characteristics that make it yet harder for marshals – with what equipment, tactics and powers? all those take time to document and train front-line officers in – to enforce the social distancing and other rules. As the pictures of crowds on Bournemouth and other beaches in the summer showed, during as before the pandemic some people feel more comfortable in a crowd, and if they enter a near-empty restaurant or train carriage, they will make to sit near the only other person in the room or train. Such a herd mentality is hard-wired into humanity.

It’s a proud trope of British police that they ‘police by consent’. Put another way, if too many people don’t consent, the state is powerless – as in 1940, when thousands in the East End of London, during the last at all comparable national emergency, defied Underground rules and camped in Tube stations to shelter from the Luftwaffe; through strength in numbers they succeed in defying authority. That’s why football hooligans have flourished for decades; compared with the offences every Saturday from the later 1960s until March 2020, in and outside pubs, in and around football grounds and railway stations, hardly any hooligans don’t get away with it. Why shouldn’t they carry on their hooliganism?! On the same principle, crowds of ravers if disobeying social distancing are simply allowed home without consequence, they will try again next Saturday. And who’s the greater risk to society – hundreds at a rave, or the otherwise law-abiding shopper who walks the wrong way down a high street?!

There lies another reason why any Covid-19 secure marshal force will have its work cut out, and why so few have been fined by police so far, compared with all the petty offences anyone out and about sees all the time – the parent barging in with their child ignoring the queue outside the infants school, the elderly couple blind to the one-way arrows in the market hall who walk in through the exit door. It’s not only the sheer number of covid-criminals, but those offending – whether through ignorance or wilfully – may angrily stick up for their rights; they may justifiably say (and may really mean it) that they are breaking the rules as their way of staying sane; holding on to a pre-March 2020 normality.

Police are still working out how to handle covid-crime just as other occupations are working out their ‘new normal’. As Paul Griffiths, president of the , said in a speech to the Police Superintendents’ Association’s (PSA) (virtual) 2020 conference: “Coronavirus has posed threats and caused impacts far greater than anything we might have imagined. We know how to deal with criminals intent on causing harm, we know how to respond to floods or chaos on our transport networks, and we know how to support those who are most vulnerable. But how do we respond to a complex, invisible killer virus that no one has encountered before?”

If police are so uncertain, how will outsourcing to marshals without police powers – and wearing what uniform and PPE? – work?


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