Forces have been praised for their ‘immediate and decisive’ action in responding to the extreme circumstances of the pandemic in a report from the police inspectorate.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said there were some inconsistencies in how the police service responded but also highlighted that the fast-paced announcement and introduction of new legislation affected some forces’ ability to produce timely and clear guidance for officers and staff.
The report, following an inspection of policing between March and November last year, concluded there was some confusion over the difference between legislation and Government guidance with the inspectorate stressing that the police can only enforce legislation.
Liz Groom, chair of Cambridgeshire Police Federation, welcomed the report’s finding.
“Policing the pandemic has been far from easy and armchair critics have been very quick to point the finger at police officers,” she explained, “We have been criticised for being too lenient and also for being too harsh and officers have felt demoralised.
“Yet all they have actually tried to do is serve and protect the public and, in doing that, they have put their own health on the line, risking catching the virus and knowing they could be taking it back to their own loved ones. To add to the pressure on them, we also saw many individuals spitting or coughing over officers while claiming to have the virus.
“I am pleased that the inspectorate praises forces for their response to the pandemic while also acknowledging that numerous changes to legislation and guidelines, often at short notice, added to the difficulties officers faced, something the Federation has been highlighting throughout.”
HMICFRS said demand on policing changed during the first lockdown. There were fewer reports of some crimes, such as theft and robbery, and an increased need to support the work of other frontline services as well as enforcing lockdown restrictions. This change meant forces used their resources differently. For example, some forces were able to clear backlogs of outstanding arrest warrants.
The inspectorate acknowledged the criticism some forces faced for their interpretation of lockdown restrictions, including undertaking road checks to identify unnecessary journeys, drone surveillance, and police action in relation to non-essential shopping and what was thought to be excessive exercise.
While these actions were viewed by some as heavy-handed or inconsistent, inspectors were assured that police forces had learnt from these instances and in general did well to maintain public trust.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “In these unprecedented times, the public looked to the police to continue to keep them safe and to keep order. While daily life substantially changed for the majority of us, the police were expected to continue to carry out their duties.
“Overall, the police rose to the challenge with dedication and commitment by taking immediate and decisive action to keep people safe and prevent crime, while also learning lessons from the rare occasions that they got it wrong.
“We know that police officers are on the frontline of Covid-19, with some tragically losing their lives to the virus. I offer our condolences to all those who have lost relatives, friends or colleagues.
“We have made recommendations to help the police improve their response to the pandemic, and to prevent existing issues in policing being made worse. The police, the criminal justice system and Government need to work together to solve these problems.”
The inspection found that police forces introduced new ways of working during the pandemic that could provide future benefits to policing, such as incorporating video conferencing technology in order to continue working with local safeguarding services.
However, some of the new ways of working adopted by police forces during the pandemic may not be right for the long-term. For example, to reduce infection risks some forces initially screened out more crimes that were unlikely to be solved, dealt with more victims indirectly, or reduced their in-person visits to offenders.
HMICFRS said that while these changes were sensible at the beginning of pandemic, forces should consider the effect they could have on the public.
It made several recommendations to police forces, including:
- Forces must immediately make sure that police officers understand and correctly implement guidance for managing registered sex offenders during the pandemic
- Forces must immediately ensure they are following self-isolation guidance when staff come into contact with someone with coronavirus symptoms
- Within six months, forces must assess the sustainability of any temporary measures made during the pandemic that change the way they work.
HMICFRS has also published a separate report about how police custody services in England and Wales operated during the pandemic.
The inspection found that police forces need to collect comprehensive and accurate information to assess the ongoing impact that Covid-19 and changes to working arrangements are having on custody services.