Police must build on their approach to the pandemic to bolster public trust and adapt to online crime, says major new report

The way police officers have dealt with people during the pandemic, through the ‘4 Es’ approach, has strengthened public goodwill and could serve as a model for their use of other controversial powers, according to a joint report by the crime and justice consultancy, Crest Advisory, and the Police Foundation, the UK’s policing think-tank.

The 4 Es approach involved officers engaging with members of the public, explaining the coronavirus laws and regulations, encouraging them to comply and enforcing the rules only as a last resort by issuing fines. The report calls on forces to consider how such high-profile and consistent messaging could be used in other contentious areas of policing, such as stop-and-search and counter terrorism.

The study, which was funded by the Dawes Trust and supported by an advisory board of senior officers, political figures and academics, also says that police forces must “urgently” focus on boosting the skills and expertise of the workforce to deal with new types of crime. Until now, efforts have concentrated on increasing capacity across the 43 forces in England and Wales, by recruiting new officers through the ‘uplift’ programme. But the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends of crime moving online and becoming more complex. “There is, as yet, little evidence that the 20,000 officer uplift is geared up to respond to that challenge,” the report authors conclude.

Other key findings:

– Support for the police approach to enforcing Covid-19 regulations has held up, although it has become more qualified over time.

– Even though police recorded fewer crimes, they did not appear to get extra time to proactively investigate more serious offences because increases in non-crime demand, much of it linked to Covid-19, offset reductions in offending.

– Police in England and Wales issued significantly fewer fines per person than forces in southern Europe, but at similar levels to countries in northern Europe.

– Disproportionate enforcement on particular socio-economic or ethnic groups was a feature of pandemic policing in all European countries, including the UK.

Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation, said the study showed police had responded well to the operational challenges of the pandemic, managing to keep core services running at a time when other public services often struggled. “Despite coming under considerable pressure, the consent-based approach, the cornerstone of British policing, held firm,” said Muir.

“The ‘4 Es’ approach was successful in avoiding any major breakdown in the relationship between the public and the police. This likely reflects the determination of chief officers to remain true to the principles of policing by consent and use enforcement only as the last resort,” he added.

But Muir said the “grey area” between the law and government guidance caused difficulties.

“It is inevitable that law and guidance will have to change during a pandemic. Nevertheless, the frequency of changes made it difficult for the police to enforce the law.”

Among nine recommendations, the report suggests that police forces use the increased capacity made available through the uplift scheme to reinvest in neighbourhood policing, with a particular focus on communities where trust and confidence in policing are low.

It also calls on the College of Policing to take on a new role assessing what the future police workforce needs are likely to be. It says the organisation should set out requirements for forces to develop recruitment and training plans to meet gaps in relation to financial and online crime.

Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive of Crest Advisory, said the pandemic has reinforced the limits of the existing 43-force structure.

“While national policing organisations generally performed an important role in coordinating the overall response, the need for a strong strategic centre has never been more apparent,” said Redgrave.

“More broadly, the pandemic has accelerated shifts in demand, as well as ways of working, that will require different policing skills and capabilities.”

Notes to editors:

Research for the report involved interviews, focus groups, surveys and an opinion poll. Views were sought from police officers and policing officials; representatives from local authorities, fire and rescue services and criminal justice agencies; and members of the public. A statistical analysis was conducted of police recorded crime and incidents, and fines imposed for alleged breaches of Covid-19 enforcement measures. Most of the research for the report was carried out between March 2020 and August 2021.

Read the full report

More details about the project can be found here:

Previous research on public attitudes towards the policing of the pandemic are available here: https://www.crestadvisory.com/post/policing-the-covid-19-lockdown-what-the-public-thinks

Findings from polling after the Clapham Common vigil: https://www.crestadvisory.com/post/policing-at-clapham-and-policing-the-pandemic