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I used to be a police officer – now I worry about them being given more power

As a liberal – even one who spent 12 years as a police officer – I am naturally wary of giving the police more powers to arrest, fine, detain and charge people.

When we do need to give the police emergency powers, as we do during this coronavirus emergency, we must all be vigilant to ensure that those powers are used properly and evenhandedly.

The biggest concern is that civil liberties mustn’t be curtailed more than necessary, and the powers mustn’t be used disproportionately against minority communities.

Most of us – the vast majority of people across the UK – are taking this lockdown seriously. We’re doing our part to protect the NHS and save lives by staying at home.

We get it. We understand that, even if we feel fine, we might still be carrying the virus and could accidentally pass it on to people we pass in the street. Or we could pick it up while we’re out and bring it home to our loved ones.

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None of us want to add to the enormous burden on our NHS by unwittingly spreading this virus, making other people ill or getting involved in a road accident.

But, as with every set of rules – from the tax system to the highway code – there will be people who don’t fully understand them, people who try to bend them, and people who think the rules simply don’t apply to them.

And that’s where the police come in. Just as the air raid wardens kept communities safe during the Second World War by making sure people observed the blackouts, now we rely on police officers to keep us safe from coronavirus by making sure we observe the lockdown.

Like everyone on the frontline of this crisis, our police are doing a very difficult job in extremely difficult circumstances. They not only have to enforce the new emergency laws, but also tackle other types of crime.

Police Scotland is already warning of scams targeting elderly and vulnerable people, while the charity Refuge reports that calls to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 25 per cent last week.

Now, as always, police officers need the consent and cooperation of the public to do their jobs.

These emergency powers must not repeat the problems of Stop and Search, whereby a black person is 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person

As the National Police Chiefs Council has said, enforcement should be a last resort. Most of police officers’ time will be spent explaining the public health rules to individuals and businesses and encouraging them to comply.

Powers to fine, arrest and detain should only be used when people refuse and there’s no alternative.

As well as guarding against these powers being overused, we must also guard against them being used disproportionately against certain communities – especially Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

These emergency powers must not repeat the problems of Stop and Search, whereby a black person is 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person.

Even worse is suspicion-less ‘Section 60’ Stop and Search: a black person is 47 times more likely to be stopped and searched under that power than a white person, and the use of that power has skyrocketed in the last three years.

As I know from my experience in the police, disproportionate use of Stop and Search powers erodes trust in the police among BAME communities.

At a time when police desperately need the trust and cooperation of the communities they serve – to implement the lockdown and flatten the coronavirus curve – we cannot afford for these new powers to be used in a way that undermines that trust.

Ministers must urgently provide the guidance and resources that police officers need to understand how to use the emergency powers they have been given.

Just like the doctors, nurses, care workers and others on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, police officers need the government to help them to help us to stay safe.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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