As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to play out in many parts of the world, it’s inevitable that some members of the public will become confused by or frustrated with the public health measures introduced by the government – bringing implications for the police officers and staff responsible for enforcing them. This is the fourth blog post in my five-part series on the impact of COVID-19 on public safety agencies (the last one was on the changing nature of work.) Here, I’ll look at the challenge for policing organizations in retaining the trust and confidence of citizens through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a whole raft of measures designed to contain the spread of the virus were rolled out. Since then we have seen a global trend of them being partially been rolled back then tightened again and various different tiering and firebreak initiatives being put in place. The police in general, and front-line officers in particular, have had the unenviable and constantly challenging role of enforcing these changing measures.

Finding the right balance

These changes are necessary aspects of the crisis recovery process. But one effect is that public health guidelines and laws can become harder to enforce consistently and may increasingly be perceived as unnecessarily restrictive by some. In such a scenario, police officers need to act carefully to ensure balance in their enforcement of public health measures – which are new to us all, the police included – if they’re to retain the support and engagement of citizens and communities.

We’ve seen police forces using a range of communication measures to help explain the actions they are taking and why. They have been able to demonstrate that they are not only operating in a way that enforces the law, but also helping to protect us all. Several forces have turned to social media to help broadcast this message and to demonstrate the challenges they face, sharing, for example, footage of officers faced with breaking up illegal raves. The use of social media as a tool to share these challenges and real experiences has helped to illustrate both the difficult decisions the police must make and the fair and transparent way in which they are dealing with it. This openness has helped to increase support for the tough role they have.

Technology and the trust challenge

One way to help monitor and enforce changing restrictions is with new technologies. However, the balance between the benefits of using technologies, especially emerging ones, to help prevent and detect crime and the need to safeguard individuals’ privacy rights and civil liberties was already a hot topic before COVID-19. In the wake of the pandemic, this debate is increasing in importance and prominence, making it even more vital that both government and private sector organizations think carefully about their use of new technologies to help manage the risks associated with COVID-19.

For trust to be maintained, the public must understand and accept the impacts, governance and intended benefits of these technologies, and have transparency around how they and the data within them is being used. They’ve proven themselves as important tools – such as drones to monitor public spaces or the use of track and trace technologies – as long as their use is explained to citizens in plain and accessible terms. For example, communicating that track and trace systems are not about monitoring people’s movements but about capturing exposure information which may highlight an infection risk.

Given the police’s role in protecting communities and enforcing the ongoing health measures, it’s inevitable that policing organizations will play a part in this debate, and consequently, it’s important they are clear and open about any measures deployed.  

Continued trust and confidence

I believe the key to retaining public trust and confidence is for policing organizations to continue to apply the balance and sensitivity in enforcing social distancing rules. The innovative use of social media is a great example of how they have sought to achieve and communicate this.

This question of how public safety agencies can use technology in an appropriate and responsible way to build public trust and confidence, rather than risk damaging it, is a theme I will return to in my next blog. There I will outline the practical actions that can be taken by public safety agencies, technology providers and the public themselves, to help support a wider trust framework between the public and police.

An earlier version of this blog was first published as an article in Policing Insight magazine.

Disclaimer: This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisors.

James Slessor

Global Public Safety Lead

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