Covid lockdown laws undermined police legitimacy, says senior officer

Hastily passed lockdown laws damaged police legitimacy, one of the country’s most senior police officers has said.

Sir David Thompson, the chief constable of West Midlands Police, said having to enforce the unpopular legislation had been "really tricky" for officers and that "quick law isn’t always great law".

Addressing his force’s strategic policing and crime board, Sir David said the "constant chopping and changing" around laws had also created challenges and there were lessons to learn.

But he stressed that it had been an "unprecedented" situation and it was therefore difficult to criticise the Government for the way it had responded.

Policing found itself at the sharp end of public criticism during the pandemic as officers grappled with rapidly changing laws to enforce Covid lockdowns.

Some forces faced a public backlash after being accused of being overzealous in their application of the law, including Derbyshire’s force, which used drones to film hikers in the Peak District. There were also questions around the introduction of £10,000 fines for people who flouted the rules.

Sir David conceded that such laws had been difficult for officers to apply and the situation had impacted heavily on police legitimacy. Referring to the large fines, he said they were not practical because many people simply could not afford to pay them.

"There are some challenges as a result of this legislation, which has impacted quite heavily on police legitimacy around what we were asked to do," he said. "Not since 1829 and the formation of [Sir Robert] Peel’s police has anybody been required to enforce legislation about who can go into somebody’s house. That’s been really tricky.

"I think people quickly forget what this legislation was there for. I think this, particularly, was the pointy end of quick legislation that wasn’t always great. I think it does exist through what was a constant chopping and changing of legislation as well.

"I think that is the lesson learned, going forward, for public health legislation, if we’re ever here again. That’s not meant as a criticism of anybody because the Government and others were in a very difficult place."

Sir David added that the reality of policing in a pandemic meant some operational day-to-day activities such as community engagement "just stopped for 19 months".

He said: "That’s tricky, at a time where to a large view we’ve been enforcing the public on public health legislation as well. Personally, I am very grateful it [the police’s enforcement role] has ended because it was necessary – but it has not been great for police-public interaction."

Earlier this year Dorset’s chief constable said the pandemic had damaged the public’s relationship with the police.

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