Soldiers are not able to pick and choose which wars they fight in. Nor can the police decide the laws they are tasked with upholding. Naturally, there are practical limits, but we rely on our elected representatives to show some consideration and exercise restraint in the burdens they impose on public servants. It is hard to think of a greater change in the requirements expected from the police than the coronavirus restrictions.
In some ways the lockdown made their work easier – for obvious reasons crime levels fell. If we are at home then the opportunities for burglars are diminished, as they are for muggers. When most shops were closed it was unremarkable that a reduction in shoplifting took place. On the other hand, enforcing the restrictions meant the police had to rapidly absorb considerable new duties.
The role of the police should not be to go beyond the regulations in restricting our activity. There were unfortunate instances of this – going through supermarket trolleys for “non-essential items” or ordering people not to sit in their front gardens. But I suspect these were exceptions and genuine misunderstandings due to the rapid pace at which the new rules were introduced.
What has been more concerning is the police force expressing an opinion on the merits of the lockdown. The police can and should advise on the practicalities of enforcing it. Individual police officers will have their own views. The majority of the public agreed with the lockdown as necessary to save lives. A minority of us felt (or feel in retrospect) it was disproportionate and may well end up costing more lives than it saved. The police as an institution should not have a view on that. Nor on the array of the details that arise. Some police officers may feel the 10pm closing time for pubs is a mistake – that doesn’t mean they are entitled to allow the pubs to stay open. In Scotland and Wales the “rule of six” exempts children under 12. In England, it does not. The respective police forces should get on with applying it accordingly. We all need to try and follow whatever the law happens to be where we live – whether or not we think it is a sensible law. The police have a duty to ensure we comply – but it is impertinent for them to tell us we should agree with any particular law even though we are obliged to accept it.
Nothing can be more important in terms of the police’s political neutrality than the conduct of demonstrations. Yet the blatant lapses by the police have been alarming. The regulations have changed but, quite properly, make no distinction as to the allegiance of the protestors. The problem is over the selective way in which they are enforced.
Before July 4th, public gatherings were limited to no more than six people. The law defines a “gathering” as a meeting involving “social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity”. That includes protests – even if social distancing was maintained, even if they are entirely peaceful.
So when 19 people (included Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy) were arrested at an anti-lockdown demonstration in Hyde Park on May 16th the police were doing their job. But have they shown consistency? On May 31st there was a Black Lives Matter protest outside the US Embassy and there were five arrests – two for assaulting a police officer. In many other protests – in Bournemouth, Coventry, Liverpool and elsewhere – no arrests were made. Criticism has been made of the passive police response to a statue being pulled down by a mob in Bristol and vandalism, in Westminster, of the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill’s statue. But these demonstrations were already illegal even before such instances took place.
On June 13th rival demonstrators came to London supposedly to “protect” statues and monuments. They included a cohort of racists and another of drunken football hooligans who were mainly were “up for a ruck” rather than having any very clear political motive. One of them urinated outside Parliament next to a memorial to PC Keith Palmer. 113 arrests were made which would seem a suitably robust response. But why the leniency shown on other occasions?
An indulgent response is usually given to Extinction Rebellion. The group organised several demos on May 30th, in defiance of the lockdown rules. The police could not give “precise numbers” on arrests.
Since July 4th, the rules changed so that demonstrations were allowed but with a requirement for organisers to carry out a health and safety risk assessment. The pressure group, Liberty, objected that demonstrations should have a full exemption. It argued that:
“The risk assessment is impossible to meet because: It is a workplace assessment which makes no legal sense when applied to a protest. There is no guidance on how a protest organiser should manage risk, or what a proper assessment looks like. No information has been provided on how assessments will be monitored.
“This means that anyone attending or organising a protest could find themselves at risk of arrest because it is impossible to know if a satisfactory risk assessment has been carried out.”
Another concern is that it gives the police great discretion over which particular “risk assessments” come up to scratch. 16 arrests were made on Saturday after an anti lockdown protest – where speakers included Piers Corbyn and the conspiracy theorist, David Icke. Apparently, a risk assessment was sent in but it was not complied with.
Then we had the very effective disruption of newspaper deliveries by Extinction Rebellion in the early hours of September 5th. The reason it succeeded was due to the police being so feeble. Hertfordshire Police said:
“Our officers are engaging with the group, which consists of around 100 people, and we are working to facilitate the rights of both the protestors and those affected by their presence.”
But those involved in criminal obstruction should have been arrested and removed without delay. The police should be aware there is no “right” to “protest” in such a way – even if they had sent in a “risk assessment” which would seem unlikely.
Some may dismiss such complaints on the grounds that in the past the police have been accused by the Left of bias. Certainly, during the mass pickets of the Thatcher era there was great controversy. Sir Keir Starmer, before he became Labour leader, put out a video stressing his “solidarity” with coal miners and striking print workers. The police were accused of “taking sides” – but in allowing those who wished to go into work to do so, they were upholding the law.
So far as the police are concerned, they would presumably deny any political discrimination at the number of arrests at different demonstrations. Operational decisions are not always easy. No doubt. But the credibility is undermined by the police “taking the knee” to some demonstrators (indeed being advised by their superiors to do so) and not to others. I am not proposing they should kneel before Piers Corbyn. They should not do so before anyone. Equality before the law is vital to a free and democratic society. The political impartiality of our police is a matter of historic pride for our country. It has been eroded and must be restored.