Policing during a pandemic: for the public health or against the usual suspects?

Sofie de Kimpe, Megan O'Neill, Mike Rowe

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    It is much remarked upon that the pandemic exposed underlying tensions and weaknesses in European societies (Marmot, 2020). Police attention, in enforcing lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and assembly, has tended to be disproportionately focused upon minority communities (Etienne, 2020; Amnesty International, 2020; The Guardian, 2020a). However, the first time in many cases, middle class white people have also been policed in ways they have not experienced. Suddenly, we were all conscious of the police officer’s gaze turned in our direction (The Guardian, 2020b). As a consequence, the pandemic has shed light on the use of police powers more generally. While police powers to stop citizens, to check their identity and to search or otherwise detain them have long been controversial in the US and in the UK, they have now become a focus of debate in Belgium, France, Germany and beyond. In a public health pandemic, the police largely continued to discipline the working class and minorities (despite the alarm raised by middle classes). Attention was not equally distributed and there is little to connect patterns of policing with, for instance, prevalence of the virus within local populations. Instead, policing continued to act as a disciplinary instrument in particularly problematic and unruly communities (Foucault, 2004 & 2009). This paper draws upon a review of policing of the pandemic undertaken by an EU COST Action (CA17102) on Police Stops. The conclusions drawn from this review echo those to be drawn from a more general review of police powers to stop citizens. Those powers must be clear, not just to the police officers exercising them, but also to those subject to them (Brown, 2020). Their purpose and their effectiveness in achieving that purpose must be subject both to thorough democratic debate and to clear consent. Their use must then also be open to scrutiny. In the absence of such clarity and transparency, the use of police powers can undermine legitimacy in particular communities and, in a public health crisis where we are all equal in the eyes of the virus, this presents particular threats to the health of all.


    ConferencePandemic Effects on Law Enforcement Training and Practice
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