What should police enforcement of government restrictions look like

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, governments around the world have been taking measures to prevent it from spreading further. Among these measures is the initiation of lockdowns and curfews to ensure that their citizens remain inside. There are of course those who do not adhere to the new movement restrictions. This forces governments to implement them in different and in some cases questionable ways.

Police fired tear gas at a crowd of Kenyan ferry commuters as the country’s first day of coronavirus curfew slid into chaos. Officers were also captured in mobile phone footage beating people with batons.

Outrage over the actions of the police was swift. “We were horrified by excessive use of police force,” Amnesty International Kenya and 19 other human rights groups said in a statement issued Saturday. “We continue to receive testimonies from victims, eyewitnesses and video footage showing police gleefully assaulting members of the public in other parts of the country.”

Minutes after South Africa’s three-week lockdown began on Friday, police screamed at homeless people in downtown Johannesburg and went after some with batons. Some citizens reported the use of rubber bullets by police and 55 people across the country were arrested.

In Rwanda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to impose a lockdown, police have been accused of shooting two civilians for defying the new measures. The police hold that the men attacked an officer after being stopped.

In Australia, authorities have threatened people sitting alone drinking coffee with six months in jail. In Britain, police came under fire for using a drone to film and shame a couple walking their dog on a secluded path. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the police and the military to shoot anyone who “causes commotion,” after 20 protesters were arrested as they demanded food during the country’s lockdown.

Looking at these cases, it is clear that police around the world are testing how far to go in their attempts to enforce restrictions meant to protect public health. There is, however, a unique aspect to this new job as police must now punish behaviour that is ordinarily routine. It is a difficult task in that the ‘offenses’ are not easily determined and the severity of one violation is not easily distinguishable from another. How then are the police meant to assess what a proportional response should be when the potential risk is so high?

It is safe to say that shooting or killing individuals for perceived violations of COVID-19 restrictions is a step too far, as the goal of the restrictions in the first place is to protect the health and safety of every individual. To prevent the loss of life, not to threaten it. That said, the jury is still out on other uses of force, or threats of incarceration or fines. People cannot stay in the house indefinitely, yet this is what is required for their own safety and the continued violation of public health orders puts not only that individual at risk, but the rest of society as well. It is a matter that needs to be taken seriously and knowing that the consequences of disobeying are heftier than a slap on the wrist may in fact be what people need in order to comply.  

While there may be no straight answer to what the right response should be, an idea may be found in a statement made by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based organization of law enforcement officials and analysts worldwide. “People are writing a new playbook daily on how to deal with this thing,” said Wexler. “The key question is: How can the police serve in a reassuring role?”

Maybe the police should stop looking at those who ‘violate’ COVID-19 restrictions as criminals presenting a threat to society, but as scared civilians doing their best in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Not everyone is capable of staying at home. Ultimately, nobody knows other people’s circumstances or reasons for leaving the house, so an extreme reaction by the police, who are supposed to be trained to deal with tense situations serves no purpose than to generate more fear and uncertainty.

In parts of Canada, police officials have explicitly promised leniency.

“It’s only in the worst-case scenario we’re going to do anything,” said Sgt. Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association last week, after lawmakers passed a law allowing for fines of $1,000 to $500,000 for failing to comply with public health orders. “We don’t want to stress out the citizens any more than we have to.”

With this kind of thinking, surely less violence and chaos will surround police-civilian interactions. At least that should be the hope. Ultimately, the safest thing to do is follow instructions. If you stay at home you’re 100 per cent guaranteed not to come into contact with any police, lenient or otherwise.

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