A threat to public safety: policing, racism, the pandemic and beyond

Scarlet Harris

This article is from NPMP’s annual magazine. You can see the full magazine online, and order physical copies here.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic shaped experiences of police racism and racialised police violence, and what might new police powers mean for communities beyond the pandemic? 

As part of a collaboration between the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), we published a report that explores experiences of policing amongst racially minoritised groups across England at this critical juncture. The report draws on in-depth conversations with 22 individuals who had interactions with the police during the pandemic, focusing on the testimonies of those subjected to policing. The findings from the research demonstrate that, rather than contributing to public safety, policing during the pandemic has reproduced profound harms for those from racially minoritised groups and communities.

Safety is a prominent theme throughout the report, but – in a challenge to dominant police narratives – it is the police themselves who appear as a major threat to the safety and wellbeing of research participants and their wider communities. For instance, a number of those who took part in the study recount how police officers they had interacted with over the course of the pandemic had failed to socially distance or wear adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In a particularly disturbing case, one woman described being stopped multiple times while heavily pregnant, and repeatedly having to ask police officers to socially distance and wear masks. We now know that unvaccinated pregnant women are amongst the most vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19. 

But risk of Covid-19 transmission due to police negligence is just one of the ways in which the harms caused by over-policing have been exacerbated in the context of the pandemic. 

Policing was made central to the British government’s response to Covid-19, and police forces were granted extraordinary powers to enforce restrictions on movement and social gatherings, administer fines and detain potentially infectious people. This raft of legislation was rushed through parliament with minimal scrutiny, having severe consequences.

The racialised impact of these increased police powers has been well-documented. For example, Black and Asian people have been issued Covid-related fines at a rate 1.8 times higher than white people, while the initial months of the pandemic saw a marked increase in police use of force, and stop and search practices, which continue to disproportionately affect racially minoritised groups and communities.

Discussions with research participants reflected these patterns, revealing how new police powers have interacted with long-standing forms of racial and class inequalities to further criminalise those communities already subject to forms of violent over-policing. The report documents a number of experiences in which Covid-related powers were used to stop or even arrest individuals in conjunction with other highly racialised police practices, such as drug-related police stops. One individual described policing under Covid as: “Like a golden ticket to […] go out there in Black communities and just ridicule us.” The use of Covid-related regulations in the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, which took place during the course of the research, was yet another heart-breaking reminder of how particular groups are rendered more (not less) vulnerable when police are granted exceptional powers.

Despite pleas from leading civil rights organisations to respond to the pandemic in a way that prioritised both public health and the upholding of civil rights, the government’s approach to policing reflected their ongoing commitment to an increasingly authoritarian agenda. Even as certain police measures are now scaled back while the pandemic develops, they have helped to pave the way for a massive expansion of policing in the coming years. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (now Act) is set to increase a multitude of police powers, ensuring even less police accountability and hitting racially minoritised communities hardest, all while clamping down on our legal right to protest. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the extent to which we do and must depend on each other – for our health, well-being and ultimately our lives. Now is the time to connect various struggles around a common message: policing is not a public service, but another critical threat to our collective safety.