Policing 'dirty work' during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research Institution / Organisation

Kingston University

Principal Researcher

Dr Camilla De Camargo

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

May 2020

Research Context

Perceptions of danger are important in shaping policing occupational culture, and the emphasis on risk and threat is used to transform everyday working practices into a ‘craft’ of identifying potential danger and contamination hazards (Crank, 1998: 110). An amount of fear and danger may be useful in policing not only because it serves to make the work more enriching and interesting (Jermier et al., 1989), but also because it forces officers to take undertake (anticipatory) purification rituals to avoid contamination from the clientele that the police interact with on a daily basis.

This year the threat of disease transference has increased exponentially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the use of contamination prevention methods is high on the agenda. The police have an impossible task in that they face an invisible disease which regularly presents asymptomatically. The Independent (2020b) has reported a ‘postcode’ lottery of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cite clashing coronavirus guidance from different authorities.

The overarching advice has been to wash hands regularly for twenty seconds though of course outside of the police station, officers are expected to use hand sanitiser. As well as a shortage of hand sanitiser the worldwide shortage of adequate PPE has been reported, naturally focusing primarily on the risk to healthcare workers in hospitals. Following joint guidance from the College of Policing and NPCC (2020), surgical gloves should have been made available in all vehicles and in offices, but the NPCC (2020) advise that masks and gloves do not need to be worn on routine patrol. The NPCC have recommended that aprons and goggles are worn ‘when someone is showing symptoms’ but as 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, the involuntary transmission of the virus is difficult to avoid (WHO 2020), particularly in the highly personal nature of police work. This is also relevant in reference to the nature of ‘hot-desking’ in stations, where officers do not have designated areas to work in but use whatever is available to undertake administrative tasks. The NPCC (2020, emphasis added) guidance advises that ‘as social distancing is not available in stations’ officers must ‘aspire to achieve two metres separation’.
Most police officers will have (dependent on PPE shortages) access to more commonly seen ‘Type 2’ surgical masks (familiar in hospitals and medical dramas), which covers a person’s nose and mouth and offers protection against large droplets and splashes of fluid.  The most recent addition to taint management discussions are the introduction of spit-hoods (also known as spitguards or contamination hoods). Made of a lightweight mesh, these hoods are instruments of restraint, which when placed over a person’s head, help minimize the risk of contamination from communicable diseases (NPCC, 2017; Police Federation, 2019). There is also the easily-overlooked reality that being coughed or spat at is deeply unpleasant and also risks transmission of COVID-19, but also less serious but still unpleasant elements, such as bacterial infections, variations of the flu, and other viruses.

The police have responded to the crisis by changing the way that they have contact with the public and Wells et al. (2020) noted that ‘many police organisations have introduced different types of communication technology, such as online crime reporting and answering queries, and the use of social media’. However, this does not apply (and cannot apply) to all public-police interactions and thus has not stopped some offenders from weaponising COVID-19. There have been reports of ‘cough attacks’ on officers by people suffering from, or claiming to have, COVID-19’ and accounts are accumulating in other UK forces.

Absence through sickness via the suspicion of, or actual contraction of, communicable diseases and viruses impacts through lost working hours and has a monumental impact on the officers and their families. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak PolFed (2019) argued that the uncertainty of infection has an unprecedented impact on officer mental well-being. These heightened levels of fear can compromise an officer’s job and have been associated with emotional fatigue, stress and anxiety (Jermier et al.,1989). As well as the heightened risk of contamination, it has been reported that officers are being ‘repeatedly exposed to trauma’ as they are called to homes where people have died from COVID-19, with ‘one officer responding to 15 deaths in 24 hours’ (The Independent, 2020c), although the vice-chair of PolFed Che Donald, promised that ‘work was underway to ensure officers can access support, amid fears of significant mental-health related absences after the coronavirus outbreak’ has ended.

Research Methodology

​This project aims to gather qualitative data on policing ‘dirty work’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflections from a previous study (De Camargo 2019) on dirty work and the use of spit-hoods by some UK police forces suggest that the police uniform can be used as a vehicle for contamination and officers are at risk of communicable diseases and infections. This is particularly pertinent during the COVID-19 pandemic with officers having access to little or no PPE and subject to ‘cough attacks’ (The Independent 2020, The Telegraph 2020), additionally, conversations with officers illustrate their expectations of contracting the virus. Qualitative data will be gathered via Zoom/phone interviews with 18 front-line police officers in different forces to gain insight into the fears and anxieties around their current dirty work. Interviews will be recorded and transcribed verbatim. Interview transcriptions will then be thematically analysed for use in research papers and further research.

Interim reports and publications

​"It's tough shit, basically, that you're all gonna get it": Virus testing in the UK and police officer anxieties of contraction of COVID-19. Paper under review November 2020.

"You're all gonna get it. It's tough shit, basically, that you're all gonna get it": COVID-19 testing and police officer anxieties of contraction and transmission in the UK. Paper under review September 2020.

The postcode lottery of safety: COVID-19 guidance and shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for UK police officers. Paper under review September 2020.

Date due for completion

January 2021
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