Alarm bells started to ring when one police force described themselves as “like kids at Christmas” when given new coronavirus detention powers.
In the name of public health, police officers have been handed some of the most draconian and excessive powers in modern history over the past six months.
But while policing powers grow by the day, infection rates are rising. We cannot police our way out of this.
Since March, stories of over-policing have been non-stop. Some have been almost laughable, with officers trying to ban people from buying custard tarts or stopping the sale of Easter eggs. But many others have been tragic.
Stop and searches of young black men have sky-rocketed, homeless people have been arrested for not being in homes they don’t have, peaceful protesters have faced prosecutions and unsurprisingly, it is BAME people who have borne the brunt of lockdown fines.
Police have been equipped with the most breathtaking powers in a generation. The most alarming of those powers is Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act, which allows police to forcibly detain anyone who is “potentially infectious”, potentially indefinitely and in undisclosed locations – even children.
In a pandemic, this could be any one of us.
The College of Policing has had to start a consultation on the powers, with one telling line in the consultation paper reading: “Police officers are not medically trained.”
But what the government has lacked in provision of tests and PPE, it has attempted to make up for in police powers, criminal sanctions and blame piled on the public. These arbitrary police powers, unsupported by a functioning testing regime, only deepen injustice and degrade public health measures.
Take the example of Marie Dinou, a 41-year-old black woman who was held in police cells for two days after refusing to give police her personal details at Newcastle train station. She wasn’t even in the courtroom when she was convicted and fined £660 under Schedule 21 for being a “potentially infectious” person who had failed to account for herself.
Across the country, there have been many cases of vulnerable people, some homeless, some children, being arrested and prosecuted under Schedule 21.
In one case, 18-year-old Lewis Brown was arrested and convicted in Oxford for being “potentially infectious” simply for travelling to drop cash off to his vulnerable mother during lockdown.
There has been no basis in any of these cases for police officers to suspect their arrestees of being “potentially infectious”.
As a result, the CPS has taken the unprecedented step of initiating a rolling, month by month review of every single charge under the Coronavirus Act.
The figures are damning – every single one of the 141 charges reviewed so far has been found unlawful and subsequently overturned.
Yet, this power remains in law, and on Wednesday the government will seek to renew it. The health secretary describes Schedule 21 as a “useful tool”. Didn’t we learn in the post-9/11 years the dangers of retaining dangerous, arbitrary and discriminatory “useful tools” on the statute books.
Injustice will be an unpleasant aftertaste of this pandemic, for many reasons – but excessive, punitive policing should not be one of them.
The parliamentary motion to renew the Coronavirus Act on Wednesday will be telling.
It will tell us whether the government is willing to prune back dangerous powers and admit where it went wrong, whether the opposition is willing to stand up to injustice or simply wants to continue to sit the hard topics out, and as a consequence, whether we’re in for a decade of over-policing.
It is a vital opportunity for a course correction – if MPs don’t take it now, it’s unlikely they ever will.
By Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch.