There are now daily examples of police forces either overstepping the regulations and guidance on social distancing to tell people off who are, for instance, in their own front gardens, or threatening to do so in the near future (see Northamptonshire police desperately trying to blame the media for writing up verbatim what its chief constable said about his force potentially checking shopping trolleys for non-essential items). While most police forces are doing a very difficult job in adjusting to new legislation while also putting their officers at risk of catching coronavirus in order to enforce it, these extreme examples do risk making it look as though some members of the thin blue line are enjoying a power trip, or have too much time on their hands.
South Yorkshire police has apologised after one of its officers was filmed telling a family they weren’t allowed in their front garden. The force said:
‘This encounter was well-intentioned but ill-informed and we’d like to apologise for the way it was handled. We’ve spoken to the officer concerned and made our approach absolutely clear.’
Today when the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked about the incident, he said:
‘It is certainly the case that we want people to be exercising and if they have their own garden and they are only with members of their own household, then they are of course free to use it as they choose.’
He also reiterated the point yesterday that shops which are allowed to open during the lockdown are ‘free to sell whatever is in stock’.
Why isn’t No. 10 being more heavy-handed with the police when they step way over the mark? Surely these sorts of misinterpretation are a threat to the lockdown as the public end up either being confused or thinking it’s all a bit ridiculous and ignoring what they are actually supposed to be doing?
Well, firstly the police are, as I said above, doing an extremely difficult and unusual job which none of them ever expected to have to do. But secondly, there may come a time when the lockdown restrictions do become more draconian and the police are required to enforce the sorts of regulations that some of their overeager officers (and chief constables) have currently only conjured up in their imagination. If Downing Street gives in to mockery of examples of bad policing now, it will be harder to insist that stopping people from travelling more than 100 metres away from their property (as is the case in some European countries) is proportionate.