Police generally responded well to exceptional circumstances of pandemic - HMICFRS

Date published: 20 April 2021

Overall the police service responded well to the challenge of policing the COVID-19 pandemic, a report published today (Tuesday) has said.

Based on an inspection of policing between March and November 2020, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said that although there were some inconsistencies, in general police forces took immediate and decisive action to respond to the extreme circumstances of the pandemic.

HMICFRS found that during the first lockdown the demand on policing changed.

There were fewer reports of some crimes such as theft and robbery, and an increased need to support the work of other frontline services as well as enforcing lockdown restrictions.

This change meant forces utilised their resources differently. For example, some forces were able to clear backlogs of outstanding arrest warrants.

Inspectors also found that the fast-paced announcement and introduction of new legislation affected some forces’ ability to produce timely and clear guidance for staff.

This sometimes led to confusion over the difference between government legislation and guidance, with the inspectorate stressing that the police can only enforce legislation. 

The inspectorate acknowledged the criticism some forces faced for their interpretation of lockdown restrictions, including undertaking road checks to identify unnecessary journeys, drone surveillance, and court summons for non-essential shopping or excessive exercise.

While these actions were viewed by some as heavy-handed or inconsistent, inspectors were assured that police forces had learnt from these instances and in general did well to maintain public trust.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “In these unprecedented times, the public looked to the police to continue to keep them safe and to keep order.

"While daily life substantially changed for the majority of us, the police were expected to continue to carry out their duties.

“Overall, the police rose to the challenge with dedication and commitment by taking immediate and decisive action to keep people safe and prevent crime, while also learning lessons from the rare occasions that they got it wrong.

“We know that police officers are on the frontline of COVID-19, with some tragically losing their lives to the virus.

"I offer our condolences to all those who have lost relatives, friends or colleagues.

“We have made recommendations to help the police improve their response to the pandemic, and to prevent existing issues in policing being made worse.

"The police, the criminal justice system and government need to work together to solve these problems.”

The inspection found that police forces introduced new ways of working during the pandemic that could provide future benefits to policing, such as incorporating video conferencing technology in order to continue working with local safeguarding services.

However, some of the new ways of working adopted by police forces during the pandemic may not be right for the long-term.

For example, to reduce infection risks some forces initially screened out more crimes that were unlikely to be solved, dealt with more victims indirectly, or reduced their in-person visits to offenders.

HMICFRS said that while these changes were sensible at the beginning of pandemic, forces should consider the effect they could have on the public.

HMICFRS made several recommendations to police forces, including:

Forces must immediately make sure that police officers understand and correctly implement guidance for managing registered sex offenders during the pandemic

Forces must immediately ensure they are following self-isolation guidance when staff come into contact with someone with coronavirus symptoms

Within six months, forces must assess the sustainability of any temporary measures made during the pandemic that change the way they work

HMICFRS has also today published a separate report about how police custody services in England and Wales operated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inspection found that police forces need to collect comprehensive and accurate information to assess the ongoing impact that COVID-19, and changes to working arrangements, are having on custody services.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: “While those held in police custody may not be everyone’s first thought, there is a still a duty of care the police has toward keeping these people safe.

“In many ways, custody work has carried on as usual.

"Overall the total numbers of people in police custody from April to August last year slightly decreased compared to the same period in 2019, particularly for children.

“As with wider policing, forces introduced measures to ensure their custody suites were safe and able to continue to operate.

"Although these measures, such as the use of video conferencing, were necessary, forces need to ensure that they review these practices to understand how suitable they are for the future.”

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