Police and COVID-19: implications to consider[1] – by  Maria Chr. Alvanou

Agia Paraskevi, Athens-Greece: Greek police clashes with youngsters refusing to break an impromptu party and throwing bottles against them. Greek police responded with tear gas.[2]

Birmingham-UK: Suspect arrested, repeatedly spits at police officers. [3]

Delhi- India: Police beats up vegetable sellers during lockdown.[4]

Nairobi-Kenya: Kenyan police raids churches and arrests priests, nuns and congregants defying bans on public gatherings including worshiping in churches and Mosques. [5]

Such events featured in the news are indicative of several issues that arise regarding the role of the police during this COVID-19 health crisis. There are challenges posed for citizens, but also for police officers. It is important not to neglect this side of the pandemic that is affecting individuals and the relationship between society and the state, as the latter is exercising its power through the police. Multilevel research is needed to highlight the whole array of problems and propose the best possible solutions inside a democratic framework.

In many countries protective measures against the spread of SARS-COV-2 have taken an obligatory form. Such measures vary and can include: complete or partial lockdown of businesses, obligatory mask use, suspension of religious services and ban on communal religious worship, public events and gatherings of more than a certain number of people. The agency responsible for controlling possible violations of such measures is the police and several implications are already evident:

  1. Law enforcement agencies do exactly what their name says: they enforce the law. They don’t make the laws, as this is the responsibility of the elected government through parliamentary procedures (or as defined otherwise by constitutional provisions during emergency times). However, the task of enforcing a law is the one that specifically expresses the power of state exercised to citizens. Police officers are the (pretty or ugly) face of the state’s power. So although governments are the ones deciding for the measures applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, police officers are the ones who come face-to-face with citizens, fining or arresting them. Thus, police officers have become the “bad guys” resented by some citizens who see them as authoritarian mechanisms imposing obedience. While the necessity and the extent of the measures adopted in several countries against the spread of SARS-COV-2 are still a controversial issue[6], the fact remains that-even if necessary and approved by many- they have introduced a new reality for all.  People live and interact differently. Restrictions have been imposed on individual liberties and the control exercised by the police is a major part of this new reality. In some countries restrictions can create memory flashbacks to times of democratic deficit.[7] During such historical periods, regimes used police forces to curb the freedoms of the population. On the other hand, in countries that have enjoyed a fully democratic historical background, this is the first time police officers assume such a direct and invasive role in everyday life. They even exercise control over the most sensitive aspects of a person’s life, like the religious one. For many people this experience is completely new and shocking. If they were “good” (didn’t steal, kill, etc., or they were not terrorists preparing bombs), they were confident they would have nothing to do with the police interfering in or with their life. But things have changed. Why they go out, how long they stay out, even where and how they worship God, all are controlled now by the police to make sure COVID-19 measures are not infringed.
  2. There have already been cases of police abuse connected with the enforcement of COVID-19 measures. Whether we are talking about police brutality or problematic exercise of police discretion, the result is that the ill-doings of specific police officers taint the whole law enforcement agency and are attributed to the state. An aggressive COVID-19 policy as well as a general atmosphere of fear creates the perfect background for police officers showing excessive zeal and treating citizens who infringe health measures as if they were criminals. After all, this is what police officers are supposed to do and know to do: handle criminals. The famous Maslow’s law of the instrument: “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” can apply here perfectly. Even more, when- due to an emergency situation- a power exercised is not supervised accordingly, it can be exercised in the wrong way. Accountability of every authority is necessary especially in times of emergency. For the above reason, citizen awareness, the correct function of control mechanisms within the police and diligent supervision by the judiciary are needed in order to avoid arbitrary police behaviour. It must be ensured that measures are applied according to the rule of law, the principle of proportionality, in good faith (whenever there is room for discretion by the police) and in relation with the scope of fighting the novel Coronavirus. Citizens should not be expected to tolerate orders that make no sense or arbitrary actions by any authority in the name of countering COVID-19 and access to justice must be effective and quick when such cases arise.
  3. It is important to see also challenges from the point of view of police officers. Being out there, on the streets, dealing with ordinary crime is already exposing them to health dangers. The proximity needed in order to arrest a suspect, especially in case of resisting arrest, can be problematic. Suspects can even deliberately remove the mask of officers and spit in their face. Even if suspects are healthy, or the attempt to transmit the virus is not successful, still officers will suffer anxiety and fear until tested negative. If police officers are indeed infected, this can be a major health damage (that can endanger also their family). Additionally, it is doubtful if precautionary measures about a maximum number of people present and the necessary distance between them can be maintained inside police stations. Policemen are a group vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their work. Their contact with people, also in the settings of controlling possible violations of the novel Coronavirus measures, is creating more and more opportunities for contracting the virus. Yet there is indeed another important challenge policemen are facing this period. As mentioned before, they are trained to fight criminals. This is the job they were recruited for in the first place. They are used to put their lives at stake in order to protect society from the “bad guys”. They have spent their lives on the streets trying to stop thieves, rapists, killers, drug dealers, terrorists. Today they are asked to patrol and try to catch: the old lady going to church, the priest carrying out religious services, the guy jogging outside the strict perimeter of his neighborhood, teenagers meeting to party. All this can create conflict of conscience to members of the law enforcement, who all of a sudden are asked to play a role in society different from their usual one. In the U.S. there have been cases of sheriffs refusing to enforce health orders, doubting their conformity to the Constitution, as well as the logic behind them[8]. This of course could constitute a potentially dangerous development, because law enforcement exists to enforce the law and carry out orders. Disobedience by law enforcement agencies, questioning and refusing to enforce the law disrupts the function of the state. Such a situation reveals a very serious problem: either law enforcement officers are carrying out a form of “mutiny” or the laws to be enforced are indeed unconstitutional, thus showing disobedience is in reality a form of protecting and practicing legality.

One of the main components of a democratic state is a well functioning police, based on discipline, integrity and the rule of law. Not only totalitarian regimes are a dystopia, but also states with no mechanisms of protection, where citizens can turn to for security and safety. Anarchy and survival of the most powerful will be the results expected without law enforcement agencies. Both options don’t serve the interests of citizens. This pandemic without question raises the bar for police officers and poses unprecedented challenges. They have to aid the state fighting against an “invisible enemy” (as it has been called) by being very visible in society and in the everyday life of citizens. Hence, they define the way citizens perceive the state during a very sensitive period. This means that police-citizen interaction must take place with extra caution, respect for human rights, human dignity and civil liberties. At the same time competent supervision authorities and civil society have the obligation to stay vigilant, so that COVID-19 health measures are enforced without abuses of power. Additionally, all efforts must be made for police officers to be protected as much as possible while they carry out their duties. The novel Coronavirus has introduced a new era for the police and policing in general. It is in the hands of all to make sure the change won’t be for the worse.

[1]This article is part of preliminary empirical considerations that the author will use during the effort of the COVID-19 and Viral Violence Working Group (National Science Foundation funded Social Science Extreme Events Research-SSEER Network& CONVERGE/Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, https://converge.colorado.edu/resources/covid-19/working-groups/issues-impacts-recovery/covid-19-and-viral-violence). This COVID-19 Working Group effort was supported by the National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) network and the CONVERGE facility at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (NSF Award #1841338). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF, SSEER, or CONVERGE.

[2]https://greece.greekreporter.com/2020/05/06/greek-police-clash-with-ravers-breaking-coronavirus-rules/ , https://www.ekathimerini.com/252398/article/ekathimerini/news/curfew-imposed-on-suburban-athens-square-after-illegal-party

[3]https://www.expressandstar.com/news/crime/2020/04/17/man-who-spit-at-police-claiming-to-have-covid-19-is-jailed/ 

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52063286

[5] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/covid-19kenya-police-raid-church-arrest-priests-nuns/1783293

[6] Not all countries have adopted measures or the same kind of measures (for example Sweden) and there is still scientific discussion about parameters regarding the fight against the spread of the virus.

[7] For example in Europe there countries ruled by military dictatorships until the ‘70s.

[8] Indicatively see https://www.policeone.com/coronavirus-covid-19/articles/ala-sheriffs-health-order-enforcement-runs-gamut-from-refusal-to-citations-vdbueEu4acsUpQrr/, https://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/california-sheriff-refuses-to-enforce-states-coronavirus-stay-at-home-orders-doesnt-make-sense-anymore