Police Powers and Civil Liberties In the Time of Corona | Danny Roberts

Some weeks ago, during the last days before the Coronavirus Era began, I found, languishing on Youtube, a video showing a 40-year old TV comedy sketch. It was from a satirical show called ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’. The sketch was set in a police inspector’s office. A constable entered, apparently called ‘Savage’, according to the inspector. Savage was then heavily criticised by the inspector for arresting one particular man dozens of times on the basis of ‘ludicrous, nonsensical, non-existent, made-up crimes’.

The ‘crimes’ included such things as ‘standing on the cracks in the pavement’, ‘loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing’ and ‘possession of an offensive wife’. Constable Savage had, it seems, been persecuting this one man for some time and even had him locked in the cells at that very moment. It turned out that the victim was black (a ‘person of colour’, as we are now required to say) and Savage was accused of racism by the inspector. In a side-swipe against the police in its pre-Macpherson period, the inspector told Savage that he was a ‘disgrace’ and would be transferred to the ‘Special Patrol Group’, apparently as a punishment (the SPG was, in the 1970s, a feared bunch of ‘over-zealous’ cops who knew how to deal with rioters). Savage was delighted and thanked the inspector.

As the ‘non-existent’ crimes were read out, to the sound of traditional canned audience laughter, one of the ‘crimes’ was greeted with a significantly higher level of hilarity than the rest. ‘‘Coughing without due care and attention’ is not a crime either’, said the inspector, to Savage’s apparent astonishment and to the audience’s intense amusement.

And at that moment, my mind went forward forty years to the present day, to a world in which coughing can be a crime. Lance King, a coronavirus sufferer, was jailed for a year at Stoke magistrates just a few days ago, after coughing (quite deliberately and definitely without due attention) at two NHS workers.

As I read the report of King’s crime, I began to wonder about the public’s response to his conviction and jailing. It seems that barely anybody today would see the twelve-month jailing of a man for coughing as some outrageous over-the-top reaction to his poor behaviour. King’s behaviour was doubtless disgusting and inconsiderate; and I doubt that too many would shed a tear for him receiving a custodial sentence, even one that is double the maximum for a summary conviction for burglary.

Nevertheless, it struck me that the vesting in the police of the draconian powers given to them by the Coronavirus Act runs the very real risk of Constable Savage rising from the grave; this time not inspired by the horrible racism critiqued forty years ago, but by something far more dangerous to our civil liberties. A sense of ‘Doing Good’, of ‘Being on the Front Line’, of ‘Preventing this Terrible Disease’ can lead to a very real over-zealousness in the enforcement of the lockdown.

Even in the public pronouncements of senior police officers can be seen the seeds of this tendency. I watched the statement made by the head of Northamptonshire police about how his officers would enforce the lockdown. I noted the righteous zeal with which he embraced his new powers, and the apparent lack of regret at the curtailment of civil liberties involved. But the most telling moment comes at the end of his statement, when he generously announced that Northants police would not be setting up roadblocks, nor delving into people’s shopping bags to check that only ‘essential’ items were being bought—and then said that they would not hesitate to do this if it became ‘necessary’. This, despite the government pointing out that if a shop is lawfully open, they can sell whatever they have in stock, ‘essential’ or not.

I began to fantasise about how the young comedians of today would handle an ‘update’ of the Constable Savage sketch to April 2020. This would require them to go beyond just donning an orange wig and mocking the US President or shouting ‘racist’ at pictures of Boris Johnson, which seem to be de rigeur for the modern ‘progressive’ comedian.

I pictured a young ‘Constable Keen’. He’s completed his course at The Progressive School of Modern Inclusive Policing and passed all courses with credit; indeed, he’s achieved Distinction in two important courses: ‘How to Avoid Unconscious Racism When Faced with a Drug Gang Wielding Knives’ and ‘Non-Crime Hate Incidents Online: How to Record them’.  I imagined him marching to his allocated ‘Corona Roadblock’ with his fellow officers, all chanting, ‘We the police are a critical front-line essential service and keen to do our bit!’ or, ‘we the Police have to Save Lives by enforcing Stay At Home and Protect the NHS!’ Maybe they can all be seen enthusiastically waving copies of the Government’s Coronavirus Leaflet (as posted to us all, at great expense) in the manner of Chinese students waving Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ during the Cultural Revolution.

Constable Keen – perhaps accompanied by an older and wiser Sergeant Savage – can be seen manning the roadblock and stopping a middle aged lady ‘on suspicion of prima facie committing a grave criminal act and Menacing Others With Possible Virus Infection’, as he might say with all pomposity; then he might arrest her for ‘Inappropriate Shopping of Non Essential Items’; perhaps she tells him that she needs to buy female sanitary items, and he deems these non-essential, because he decides she looks too old to need them…. Sergeant Savage might look up wearily at Keen’s behaviour and mutter to himself ‘at least he didn’t taser her this time…’

Now this may seem over-the-top. It clearly is an exaggeration of what may occur. But it has a grain of uncomfortable truth about modern police practice, just as ‘Constable Savage 1980’ had that grain about police violence and corruption in the 1970s.

We can hope that, despite the joyful abandon with which we’ve consented to the removal of our civil liberties, things return soon to normal; and that Constable Keen goes back to more prosaic duties, his ‘over-zealousness’ returned to the file marked ‘Never Happened’.

Let’s hope it’s enough to hope.


Photo by Chad Davis on Flickr.

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