(Photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona)
The numbers are significant. Police data shows that at the beginning of the pandemic and during the first lockdown in the UK – between 27 March and 25 May of 2020 – the number of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) issued by the police in England and Wales was 1.6 times higher for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people than White people, with Black and Asian people above the BAME average at 1.8 times higher than White people. (https://news.npcc.police.uk/resources/policing-the-pandemic-4).
Fixed Penalty Notices allow a penalty to be paid instead of prosecution or criminal conviction for breaching of the COVID restrictions. Thus, FPNs are arguably the strongest tool given to the UK police to handle the pandemic as defined by the Coronavirus Act 2020.
According to Terence Channer, a London solicitor experienced in cases against wrongful application of the law, “the over policing of the Black community was not paused, was not furloughed” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Channer adds that while Black people make up 12% of the London population, they represent 31% of arrests during lockdown.
The vagueness of the new emergency powers are potentially contributing to over policing practices and the unlawful use and enforcement of COVID regulations. Channer gives the example of a young Black man who was arrested for not wearing a face mask inside a shop. This man was exempt, but was arrested for not providing his personal details despite this not being a requirement. The lines seem to be blurred between COVID restrictions and COVID guidance: the former, such as hosting large gatherings, are unlawful during lockdown, but wearing of facemasks constitutes guidance and thus, does not automatically warrant disclosure of personal details to issue a FPN nor an eventual arrest. In some cases though, it is up to police officers to decide when not wearing a facemask escalates to a FPN or an eventual arrest.
One of the biggest challenges the UK police forces have encountered during the pandemic has been the regular change of restrictions and the UK tiered system. Although necessary to manage the pandemic, these changes find frontline police officers struggling to keep up with when certain behaviours and which practices stop or start being lawful. This leaves emergency powers open to interpretation and as such, open to biased application, not only but especially on grounds of race.
Co-POWeR is conducting research to understand how this policing under these emergency powers are affecting BAME families and communities. The aim of the project is to know how these communities and associated support structures are able to engage with and/or develop practices of wellbeing and resilience to counteract potential negative impacts.
If you wish to participate in this research, please contact M.BernalLlanos@leeds.ac.uk.
Blog post by Dr Monica Bernal Llanos