Policing a pandemic: An exploration of police use of powers during COVID-19 and the impact of public perceptions of police legitimacy

Research Institution / Organisation

Liverpool John Moores University

In Collaboration With

Merseyside Police

Principal Researcher

Laura Boulton

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

September 2020

Research Context

 

Context: On 26th March, 2020, the UK government made new public health regulations strengthening police enforcement powers in England, to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The Coronavirus Act 2020 ensures people stay at home and grants the police additional enforcement powers to:

  • instruct them to go home, leave an area or disperse

  • ensure parents are taking necessary steps to stop their children breaking these rules

  • issue a fixed penalty notice of £60, which will be lowered to £30 if paid within 14 days

  • issue a fixed penalty notice of £120 for second time offenders, doubling on each further repeat offence.

Individuals who do not pay a fixed penalty notice under the regulations could be taken to court, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines. If an individual continues to refuse to comply, they will be acting unlawfully, and the police may arrest them where deemed proportionate and necessary. Similar government restrictions and police powers have been put in place in other countries (e.g. France).


These powers are new to both officers and the general public. Typically, invasive police powers (i.e. stop and search) have been found to be ineffective, with significant negative collateral consequences including reduced trust and engagement (Bradford et al., 2020). Furthermore, with a lack of clear guidance on these proposed enhanced powers there have been a number of calls for investigation into whether these powers will impact on ethnic minority groups disproportionately (Byrne, 2020). These concerns reflect police use of stop-and-search disproportionality rates: between April 2018 and March 2019, in every 1,000 stop-and-search operations, four white people were stopped compared with 38 black people (Khan, 2020). Moreover, the UK’s first conviction under the Coronavirus Act 2020 involved a Black woman, which was later withdrawn with an apology.

Whilst, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has jointly called for research proposals to investigate emerging evidence of an association between ethnicity and COVID-19 incidence and adverse health outcomes, there is less focus on the wider social harms that COVID-19, and the implications this has had on public policy and police powers. Despite many news articles, opinion pieces and social media status’ displaying views of this topic online, there appears to be no empirical research which objectively explores this as of yet.

Objectives: Traditional UK policing relies on Peelian principles of policing by consent in which public views of police legitimacy is based on transparency about their powers, integrity in exercising powers and accountability for doing so. This research seeks to explore the impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on public perceptions towards the police and examine their use of powers.

This project seeks to explore these issues in the UK and within the force area of Merseyside specifically, but hopes to serve as a catalyst for further examination to explore these trends nationwide and internationally. Therefore, this research is a vital first step to provide novel pilot data for a larger grant application (e.g., ESRC Research Grant Scheme). Upon completion of this project and greater understanding of feasibility regarding widening the scope of this work, further funding will be sought.

Research Methodology

​Due to the exploratory and current nature of this research, a mixed methods approach will be taken using primary data to explore the impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on public perceptions towards the police and examine their use of powers via three studies. The three proposed studies are distinct, but related, as follows:

Study 1: Public Survey

Aim: To understand current public perceptions of The Coronavirus Act 2020 police use of powers.

Data Collection: Primary data will be collected via a public, online survey using Qualtrics survey software. This survey will gather quantitative data using closed questions (i.e. Likert style scales) which capture self-reported perceptions of The Coronavirus Act 2020 police use of powers (i.e. views of, and engagement with, the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app, trust, legitimacy, confidence and satisfaction in the Police etc.). A sample size of n = 250 will be targeted. The link to complete the survey will be made publicly available online and distributed using social media accounts (Twitter and LinkedIn) connected to the research team members and the partnering institutions (LJMU and Merseyside Police). In order to gain representative views, the link will be distributed as widely as possible, seeking support from relevant BAME connected organisations (i.e. (i.e. The Anthony Walker Foundation, the Black and other Racial Minority Network, Appreciating People etc.). Only those currently living in the Merseyside force area will be asked to complete the survey. Responses will be anonymous.

Analysis: SPSS will be used to enable statistical analysis of differences, relationships and associations across the key variables identified.

Study 2: Police Survey

Aim: To understand frontline police officer experiences of the implementation of The Coronavirus Act 2020 police use of powers.

Data Collection: Primary data will be collected via an online survey using Qualtrics survey software. This survey will gather predominately quantitative data using closed questions (i.e. Likert style scales) which capture self-reported experiences of implementing police powers in accordance with The Coronavirus Act 2020 (i.e. factors influencing their decision making). Some open questions will be included to enable participants to share experiences and views in their own words. A sample size of n = 100 will be targeted. The link to complete the survey will be made publicly available online and distributed using social media accounts (Twitter and LinkedIn) connected to the research team members, affiliated policing groups (i.e. Society of Evidence Based Policing, Problem Solving and Crime Prevention Programme etc.) and the partnering institutions (LJMU and Merseyside Police). The link will also be distributed via Merseyside Police staff email lists. Only Merseyside Police officers will be asked to complete the survey. Responses will be anonymous.

Analysis: For qualitative data (open survey question responses), NVivo 12 will be utilised using a thematic analysis approach. For quantitative data (closed survey responses), SPSS will be used to enable statistical analysis of differences, relationships and associations across the key variables identified.

Study 3: Police Data Analysis

Aim: To map and examine the COVID related arrests/use of COVID related powers in Merseyside.

Data Collection: Secondary data relating COVID related arrests/use of COVID related powers April 2020 – April 2021 will be collated via police systems (i.e. Police National Computer and investigation case files) and analysed. Access has been agreed by Merseyside Police and all investigators listed have been vetted to access such information. 

Analysis: Once the collated data is extracted, cleansed and anonymised, both quantitative and qualitative analysis will be conducted. For this, thematic analysis of case reports will be incorporated using NVivo 12 and SPSS will be used to enable statistical analysis of key variables (i.e. demographics of perpetrators, locations of arrests against the Index of Multiple Deprivation, outcomes, etc.).

Date due for completion

August 2021
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