Public ‘hunger for freedom’ threatening lockdown compliance, SPF warns

An increasing “hunger for freedom” among the public means compliance with the lockdown is “steadily dissipating”, making enforcement of a potential second wave extremely challenging, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) has warned.

Jun 9, 2020
By Tony Thompson
General Secretary of the SPF, Calum Steele

The SPF, which represents Police Scotland’s 17,000 officers, has raised its concerns in written evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, which is looking at the policing of the pandemic.

The committee will today (June 9) hear evidence from Chief Constable Iain Livingstone and John Scott QC, chair of the Independent Advisory Group on the police’s use of temporary coronavirus powers.

Amid ongoing concerns around the country at how the easing of lockdown restrictions is impacting on compliance, the SPF said there was a disparity between the public’s expectations of how police should respond, and the legislative provisions in place.

In its evidence, the SPF said it was “regrettable” that the lockdown laws were created with too little consultation with the police, despite their unprecedented scope.

It said: “Although anecdotal, it is our observation that public compliance with the public health guidance, and indeed the regulations has steadily dissipated as the weather has improved.

“Police officers have faced the real challenges of a public expecting the police to enforce government guidance and the considerable gap between it and the actual legislative provisions.

“The SPF feels that rather that seek to address that gap in its messaging, the Government messaging was deliberately ambiguous and this has led to an outpouring of frustration (particularly on social media) between those who want the police to be more authoritarian and those who advocate for liberty and policing within the limits of the law (arguably to be able to enjoy greater freedom than the guidance suggested).

“In some respects, the SPF considers that the Covid-19 restrictions represent perfectly what it is politicians and public expect of the police.

“On one hand they expect the police to go beyond their lawful powers to ‘do the right thing’, while on the other they are intolerant of the police doing anything that is not explicitly codified.

“To be clear, the SPF considers that there is already too much of a gap emerging between what the law says, what the guidance says, and what the public is prepared to tolerate. We see that gap only growing in the weeks ahead. The sense of a hunger for ‘freedom’ is increasing with each passing day.”

The SPF also said officers were “exceptionally angry” that those found guilty of weaponising the coronavirus by coughing or spitting were not always given custodial sentences.

“The harm this caused (and continues to cause) cannot be understated. On one hand, officers were (and are) expected to enforce legislation to ‘save lives’, while on the other having to tolerate that those who endangered their own lives often being home in their beds before the officers themselves were off duty,” it added.

In its own evidence to the committee, the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents echoed the SPF in saying any new changes to the law must be reasonable and enforceable.

It said: “It is hoped that any amendments or new legislation will avoid creating offences that criminalise the public for what in most instances will be normal behaviours and actions.

“Care must also be taken to avoid gaps in the regulations that then require non-enforceable advice/guidance to be regularly issued.

“Aspects of guidance such as the recent limited travel distance of five miles highlight the difficulty in achieving ‘compliance realism’ and risk discriminating against those people living in rural communities if brought into strict regulation.

“Assessment of the continuation and longevity of the public’s goodwill, to grant the police the consent and authority to enforce the regulations must be taken into careful consideration.”

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