Police failed to make use of ‘Covid dividend’ to take down drug gangs during lockdowns

Police failed to exploit a “Covid dividend” to take out gangland bosses as lockdowns freed up officers from their normal day-to-day demands, a new study has found.

The research project, by two leading crime think tanks, said there had been an expectation that forces could have been more “proactive” while policing during lockdowns, as the normal “reactive” daily demands of 999 calls and street crime fell dramatically.

It was anticipated that this “Covid dividend” would mean officers would be freed up to generate intelligence, pursue investigations, and interrogate leads particularly in tackling drug gangs which “often make up a substantial proportion of the open cases on an officer’s desk,” said the researchers.

However, the study by the Police Foundation and Crest Advisory said the dividend never materialised as officers focused on street dealers rather than the kingpins, and were distracted by policing Covid restrictions, a rise in anti-social behaviour and protests from groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Police clashed with protestors in London during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, following the death of George Floyd in the US

Credit: DYLAN MARTINEZ

In the first comprehensive analysis of policing during the pandemic, the researchers conclude: “The optimistic view of a Covid-19 dividend was never really borne out, at least for drug offences.

“Our analysis suggests that this was due to the increased pressures of enforcing the Covid-19 legislation and navigating the new public health role for policing.”

Drug offences were one of the only crimes to rise during the pandemic, as others like violence and theft fell by as much as 48 per cent. This was, however, because drug dealers who continued to ply their trade became easier to spot and therefore catch, said the researchers.

“Officers spoken to for this report unanimously agreed the spike in drug offences was not primarily driven by detection of the most serious offences, such as trafficking, which typically happens due to proactive drug market policing, but rather by lower-level possession offences,” they said.

A surge in anti-social behaviour, fuelled by people being locked down next door to each during the pandemic, also “prevented police from capturing the Covid-19 dividend.”

“During ‘normal’ times, anti-social behaviour typically makes up eight to nine per cent of all incident demand, but during the pandemic period it rose to a peak of 17 per cent,” said the study.

“Antisocial behaviour did not dip at all in lockdown one, it reached a two year peak in week three of the pandemic and then stayed high until the end of our data in March 2021.”

The rise in anti-social behaviour was compounded by an increase in public order offences which the researchers said were likely a proxy for enforcement of new Covid rules.

“As a result of the pandemic, police forces were increasingly required to involve themselves in and make judgements on the social interactions of the public in an unprecedented way,” said the researchers.

Support for police holds up – but not in London

The researchers said support for the police, based on polling, had “held up” although it had become “more qualified” over time.

“The public has tended to sympathise with the police believing they have been put in a difficult position due to the constant changes in the law and have insufficient resources to enforce public health restrictions while tackling other forms of crime and disorder,” said the researchers.

However, they noted “worrying evidence” from London that trust and confidence in the Met Police had declined, which they speculated could be linked to the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer, the policing of protests and the impact of Covid policing on black communities.

The researchers suggested the police’s “four Es” approach to Covid regulations – engage the public, explain, encourage and only finally enforce – had been successful and could be applied to other controversial tactics such as stop and search, to explain better why they were doing it.

They warned that the pandemic had accelerated trends for crime to move online and become complex through a surge in fraud, child exploitation and cyber-stalking, which the police would need to address in their deployment of the extra 20,000 officers funded by the Government.

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