Locked Up for Lockdown: Police abuse of Coronavirus powers

As we approach the end of the latest period of national ‘Lockdown’, (but prepare ourselves for further restrictions on social life and travel under the regional ‘three tier’ system) questions continue to be asked about the enthusiasm with which police forces have embraced, interpreted, and enforced the extra curricular powers granted to them under the emergency coronavirus legislation (The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020).

Indeed, there is a real danger in extending the powers of the Police to interfere with any given individual’s liberty, particularly by way of ill-defined ‘emergency’ legislation which can lead to ‘inflation’ of those powers in the minds of front-line Officers, and escalations of force and violence, when Officers consider that their newly invested authority is being challenged. FOI data obtained by the Guardian newspaper from 32 Police forces demonstrates that during the initial Lockdown of April – June 2020 crime fell by 15% but there was nevertheless a 12.5% increase in use of force by Officers.

In other words, if Police Constables are not properly trained and directed in how to use such powers sparingly and proportionally, and the more aggressive among them not properly restrained, then use can easily shade over into abuse, whether in the form of excessive violence or unlawful deprivation of liberty.

Witness the example of my client Dwight, who, during the initial Lockdown period in April 2020, was on his way home from a long and tiring shift as a railway worker.

Wrongful arrests under Police Lockdown powers

Dwight is an army veteran who gave 10 years service to this country, service which saw him being ultimately discharged on medical grounds.

At the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 Dwight was continuing to serve the public at risk of his own health as a key worker on the railway network.

At around 2 am on 18 April, Dwight had just arrived home after a 12-hour shift at work and wanted nothing more than simply to put his head down and sleep. Having parked his car outside the block of flats where he lives, Dwight was intercepted by two Police officers who challenged him to identify himself.

Dwight immediately confirmed that he was a key worker and had just come from work on the railways.

Unfortunately, this was not good enough for the lead police officer who was evidently enjoying his newfound powers of ‘enforcing curfew’ and who took affront at Dwight’s refusal to provide his personal details (which in fact Dwight was under no obligation to do).

The officer boldly  – and incorrectly – went on to assert that if Dwight refused to give his details he was liable for arrest in contravention of “the coronavirus rules“.

Dwight knew that this was incorrect and had a suspicion that the officer was targeting him because of the colour of his skin (Dwight is a black man). All Dwight wanted to do was get to bed, but he nevertheless pulled out from his car his work uniform including his hard hat, high visibility jacket and boots for the avoidance of any doubt.

The Officer’s continued insistence that Dwight had to provide his name so that he could be ‘checked out’ was nonsensical,  as obviously there was, and is, no database of key workers that the police have access to. Dwight had been doing nothing whatsoever which gave rise to any suspicion of a criminal offence.

Dwight validly protested that this whole episode was not only pointless, but was in fact putting them all at risk of contracting or transmitting the virus, as neither he nor any of the Officers confronting him were wearing masks.

I have viewed the body camera footage of this whole interaction and it seems very clear to me that the Officer’s continued harassment of Dwight was not at all in the interests of minimising the spread of the Coronavirus, but was rather motivated by the Officer’s annoyance that Dwight was infringing or rejecting the Officer’s self-perceived power and authority.

One of the Officers then threatened to arrest Dwight for the non-existent offence of ‘failing to give his details’. In frustration Dwight then said that he would phone his manager, who would vouch for him, but perversely, as Dwight attempted to do so, the Officers took hold of him, instructed him to put down his phone and told him he was under arrest “for failing to provide your details”.

The Officers then proceeded to aggressively manhandle Dwight, by pushing him against a wall and handcuffing him to the rear. Dwight was horrified and could not believe what was happening.

Under duress Dwight now provided the Officer with his full name, but unfortunately the Officer was not finished, as he now threatened to arrest Dwight for a ‘Public Order’ offence, as the assault which the Officers had perpetrated on Dwight had caused him to start swearing at them.

The Officer then continued to demand further personal details from Dwight, including his address and when Dwight questioned his authority and motivation in so doing, the Officer announced that Dwight was now “nicked”  “for not giving me your details under the Coronavirus rules.”

Dwight understandably protested that this was nothing short of police harassment.

Unfortunately, the harassment continued as the Officer called for ‘back up’ in the form of further Police units to attend, and threatened Dwight with CS gas spray, using the weapon to force Dwight to kneel on the ground with his hands behind his back. All of this because a tired a key worker had merely grumbled about giving his name to a police officer, who indeed had no right to demand it in the first place, as there was simply no evidence that any offence was being committed.

As Dwight continued his legitimate protest, with around seven Officers now in attendance, one of the Officers started to call Dwight “a fucking idiot” and a “stupid man”.

One of the newly arrived Officers, a female Police Officer, struck a far more reasonable tone, taking her colleagues to one side and suggesting that perhaps they simply needed to let the situation calm down and allow Dwight to go home, which was manifestly all he had wanted to do in the first place. The female Officer also expressed her misgivings at the fact that one of her male colleagues had been swearing at Dwight (as described above) – although it is clear from the recording that her objection was not so much that the officer had spoken and behaved in such an unprofessional way, but rather that his language would have been caught on body camera, and by implication was therefore undeniable…

Dwight once more expressed his absolute frustration at the farcical nature of this situation – he was a key worker risking his own health to do his bit to help fight the virus and keep the country going; and he was being arrested and threatened with violence by the Police when attempting to return home.

Unfortunately, the level- headed advice of the female Officer to her colleagues continued to fall on deaf ears, and after the lead Officer had again berated Dwight for refusing his initial request to provide personal details, Dwight was arrested and taken into custody for an alleged breach of Section 4 of the Public Order Act.

Dwight has naturally instructed me to pursue a claim against the Constabulary concerned, and liability for assault and battery and false imprisonment has been admitted by the Police. The action is ongoing and I strongly suspect that at the end of the case the Officers involved and their senior management will wish that they had heeded the advice of the female Officer to  de-escalate the situation and just let Dwight go to bed.

What a fantastic waste of public money this was – multiple police patrols called in to deal with one man who was manifestly committing no criminal offence; that man being taken into custody after being assaulted and detained for hours in Police custody; and everybody involved being at heightened and unnecessary risk of becoming new vectors in the spread of the Coronavirus which at that point was rampant throughout the country. This was a situation in which the only risk of coronavirus transmission was being engineered by the Police themselves in corralling Dwight, preventing him from getting home, and then calling more of their colleagues to join in.

But more importantly it is a salutary lesson and warning as to the risks of increasing police powers given the common propensity of officers to want to utilise the powers they have to their fullest. Many Officers already tend to react badly to having their authority challenged, and rushing through an apparent and potentially dramatic increase in such powers in a time of emergency, is tempting the type of abuse of power which we saw being perpetrated here against Dwight. Too many Officers, it seems, do not err on the side of caution when they reach a potentially sensitive area at the limit of their powers.

The very purpose of these regulations was to protect public health, not to criminalise people who left their homes – but the Officers involved in Dwight’s case seem to have completely lost sight of this (or indeed, never had sight of it in the first place). It is very concerning to see Officers taking such an aggressive stance – almost as if they were relishing their perceived ‘new’ powers of demanding people’s details and being able to stop anyone they saw in the street. This is the kind of abuse of power which diminishes the trust which people have in the Police, and thereby in the long run diminishes Police authority and effectiveness in fulfilling their core duties of preventing ‘real’ crime. Grabbing people like Dwight off the street – actively preventing him from going through his front door, as if they were playing a game of ‘cops and robbers’ and weren’t going to let Dwight get back to ‘barley’ – is an almost tragically farcical upending of the purpose and intent of these rules: which was to improve public health and minimise contact between individuals; the actions of the Police, calling for backup and manhandling Dwight in a situation where no one was wearing masks, had the directly opposite effect, and, what is more, tend to do longer term damage to the health of the relationship between the Police and the public, which is at all times founded upon proportionate and respectful use by the Police of the extraordinary powers that they have.

The purpose of the Coronavirus Regulations, after all, wasn’t to give the Police extra powers to snoop on people, or to issue fines, but was to encourage as many people who could to remain at home and the first thing Officers should have been doing was directing people to go back inside their houses (which was all Dwight wanted to do!) not preventing them from doing so in order to fine and/or arrest them. We don’t live in a ‘papers please’ Police state, and therefore it is right to criticise and question the Police when many of their officers betray evidence of wishing as though – and acting as if-  we did.

The name of my client in this blog post has been changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.