Update 28 October – 25 November

Both the Undercover Research Group and Netpol have been particularly busy in November with, respectively, the start of the Undercover Policing Inquiry and the launch of a new report on the policing of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. We have not had the capacity to update this blog as regularly as usual. This is, therefore, a summary of policing of coronavirus restrictions over the last month.

POLICING

The start of a new national lockdown has seen a much tougher attitude to protests than previously, with the right to freedom of assembly curtailed until current restrictions are lifted in December. On 5 November, police arrested 190 people during anti-lockdown protests that took place in central London; two days later Scotland Yard apologised for telling journalists and photographers to leave and threatening them with arrest. They were wrongly told they were not seen as essential workers and needed special permission from the Metropolitan police service (MPS) to be present.

On 13 November, Merseyside Police arrested 27 at a protest in Liverpool, and at another protest in the city on 21 November, a viral video shows the violent arrest of a protester who was punched repeatedly in the head by officers.

A £10,000 fine was issued to the organiser of a protest in Manchester and Northumbria Police dispersed a protest in Newcastle. In Brighton, a protest organiser has been summoned to court for a protest on 7 November. Five people were charged with offences in connection with another anti-lockdown protest in Bristol on 16 November, where Avon & Somerset Police used public order teams, the mounted unit, the dog section, a drone, body-worn cameras and CCTV at to police a demonstration of 400 people.

Merseyside Police are investigating a video showing anti-testing protesters shouting at pupils and harassing a teacher at a Liverpool school, one of the sites of a mass coronavirus testing operation that has been piloted in the city.

Just before the start of the latest lockdown, A qualified nurse was arrested and taken to a Hull police station after trying to take her 97-year-old mum out of a care home. By mid-November, it was reported that Gloucestershire Police were called out around 100 times to reports of lockdown breaches. In Lincoln, the police issued fines to two people who did not “have any good exemption or reason for being in Lincolnshire”. The owner of a venue in Bristol was given a £10,000 fine for the second time. In Manchester, £10,000 fines were issued after police shut down two warehouse parties in Salford and Bolton and a flat party in the city centre.

At the University of Manchester, students complained they had been imprisoned after fences were placed around their halls to pen them in, and residents were filmed by security. The students pulled the fences down and police riot vans descended on a Fallowfield campus protest. Two security guards also racially profiled a young black student, assaulting him as they repeatedly said that he looked like a campus drug dealer.

A woman reported received “life-changing injuries” after she was set upon by a police dog at an unauthorised rave outside of Bristol.

At around the same time, it was also reported that police forces across England and Wales were told to temporarily stop handing £10,000 on-the-spot fines to people holding gatherings of more than 30 people, over fears of unfairness between those who pay upfront and those who challenge the fee in court. The issuing of these “super fines” was, however, quickly resumedLiberty and Big Brother Watch called for a review of these fines to ensure compliance with equality laws‘ and wrote to ten police forces with concerns of racial discrimination.

Freedom of Information data gathered by the PA news agency shows that in West Yorkshire, where police issued some of the highest numbers of fixed penalty notices to people caught breaching lockdown restrictions, 497 out of 756 fines issued between March 27 and September 21 (66 per cent) had not been paid within 28 days. In some part of the country, court hearings are, however, starting to take place.

While the restrictions for the holiday season get-togethers are still not finalised in late November, a month ago, David Jamieson, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner chief started warning that the police will enter homes and break up Christmas dinners if families break the lockdown rules, even if this would could serious riots.

Worryingly, COVID enforcement officers – who are not police officers – have been hired by councils that are granting spy powers to allow them to catch suspected rule-breakers. Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has said the enhanced roles amounted to ‘undercover officers’ who would be ‘spying’ on residents and only undermining public trust in efforts to enforce restrictions. Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer, said: ‘Hiring undercover officers to enforce guidance that has no legal basis is heavy-handed’. After BBW wrote to Brent Council, they removed a reference to ‘covert’ deployments from the Covid Enforcement Officer job descriptions.

LEGAL
Kirsty Brimelow QC gave evidence to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords on the (il)legality of the emergency laws, the unfairness of FPNs, how enforcement keeps going wrong-reflecting on the first wrongful prosecution. Spoiler: criminal justice system is on its knees.

Last month, Tristan Kirk reported on secret London prosecution of COVID-19 rule breakers. The court has since apologised and promised things will be different in the future. However, things have not changed for the better.

Westminster magistrates are using the Single Justice Procedure for these cases, behind-closed-doors with just a magistrate & legal advisor present in prosecutions for breaking the first coronavirus lockdown. In a long Twitter thread Kirk explains he has seen paperwork that shows:

  • Convictions for offences people weren’t prosecuted for;
  • Hefty fines handed out which may exceed the legal maximum;
  • Police allowed to try again when paperwork is botched.
RESOURCES

Analysis of the lockdown regulations that came into force on 5 November for 28 days by Adam Wagner.

October Emergency Powers & Civil Liberties Report (.pdf) by Big Brother Watch, looking at the tier system, divergence across the four nations, government mass-monitoring of social distancing and police interference with protests.

A guide from The Scottish Activist Legal Project (SCALP) outlines the implications for campaign groups of the Scottish COVID-19 regulations, which came into force on 2 November.

The law firm Commons Legal has launched a free advice tool for people in England who’ve been fined under coronavirus regulations.

Coronavirus: When can I leave my home? Guide by Liberty, last updated 13 November.

COMMENT

Police Off Campus, Northern Police Monitoring Project on the policing of students in Manchester, 20 November.

Blaming Covid ‘rule-breakers’ is a distraction: support is needed, not fines. Until we start helping people instead of hectoring them, lockdown 2 will be at risk of falling apart, says Stephen Reicher, a member of the behavioural science advisory committee to Sage.

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