After weeks of strict lockdown the easing of regulations, allowing people to get outdoors for exercise more regularly, and to have the opportunity to see others in public spaces, was a huge relief for many.
It was great to see residents of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly enjoying a gloriously sunny weekend, albeit while still having to observe strict social distancing.
The easing of the lockdown means our police officers have to call on their reserves of judgement, and the force’s decades of community policing experience, more than ever before.
It is not illegal for people to be visiting from other parts of the country, but it is still too early to have overnight visitors, so over the past week or so there has been a shift in policing policy from challenging vehicles to focussing on gatherings and those who might be breaking the rules with an overnight visit to a second home or holiday accommodation.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, enacted on March 26, gave officers the power to issue fixed penalty notices to people who breach those regulations and who put the health of others at risk. As he announced a partial easing of restrictions, the Prime Minister increased the amount of fines from £60 to £100, which means that the maximum fine for repeat offenders now stands at £3,200.
The force has had just a few weeks to understand these new laws, interpret guidance on implementing them and ensure that hundreds of frontline officers implement not just the letter of the law but exercise their judgement to ensure that the spirit of the law was enforced.
I am confident, and I hope you are too, that our police force is doing a good job in difficult circumstances at the moment.
A large part of my reasoning for that confidence is that I have been reassured that the new powers have been, for the most part, used legitimately, appropriately and proportionally in the first phase of the crisis by an independent scrutiny panel of members of the public run by my office.
Scrutiny is a vital tool in challenging Devon and Cornwall Police appropriately, ensuring that there is accountability in policing and offering constructive insight to support the Force to learn and develop. It’s like having a critical friend who has your best interests at heart. In normal times we scrutinise force activity including its use of powers (such as stop and search and use of force), how the force issues out of court disposals, the performance of its contact centre and response times.
The power of scrutiny also comes from its independence. My role and my office are completely separate and independent from Devon and Cornwall Police, as are my scrutiny panels. I am particularly proud of the way that they work to support tangible improvements in policing, something which was identified by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services during their most recent inspection of Devon and Cornwall Police.
During the pandemic I thought it useful to examine how officers had exercised their new powers so earlier this month, in a virtual panel chaired by me, scrutiny volunteers examined a wide range of evidence including legislation, regulations, guidance, the number of complaints received by the force, correspondence to my office and body worn video from the frontline.
Our scrutiny panel members, who I thank for their time, observed that during the pandemic the force had, in terms of public perception, a difficult task because different people want and expect different things from the police. Police officers are well known in our communities as being there to prevent crime and enforce the law, but right now they are being asked to protect us in a very different way, by enforcing legislation to protect our health and our National Health Service.
The panel also respected the opinions of those individuals who had felt a genuine cause to complain or felt dissatisfied with the force’s approach, but overall and based on all of the information reviewed, considered that the response had been proportionate.
The relationship between police and communities and the concept of policing by consent is still the cornerstone of our approach in Devon and Cornwall. Therefore, the view of the panel was very reassuring as it showed that the police have, at this stage, achieved the right balance in continuing to engage with the public while ensuring they use their new powers effectively in the first phase of the pandemic.
It was particularly interesting to see that the panel recognised that the pandemic, whilst devastating, had created a moment in time where police officers had the opportunity to reconnect with their communities. Many members reflected on the opportunity to consider whether some policing practices could be done differently in the future.
The work of this panel is of use to the Chief Constable because panel members’ views help to inform our policing approach as we move in to the next phase of the pandemic.
I hope that you, like me, are reassured by this work. If you are interested in it and want to find out more please visit our scrutiny pages.