June 22, 2021 00:38

Policing the Pandemic: Six-wave panel study highlights the importance of legitimacy and public interactions

As England enters a new period of lockdown, on the heels of the ‘circuit breaker’ in Wales and stringent restrictions in many parts of Scotland, it is vital to learn lessons from the first lockdown earlier this year. Why do people comply with sweeping restrictions to their liberty, what role do police play in this, and what level of public support is there for the actions police might be required to take?

On Wednesday 4 November 2020, the Institute for Global City Policing at UCL hosted a webinar presenting findings from a six-wave panel study Policing the Pandemic. The study was conducted online between April and August 2020 by a group of researchers at UCL, LSE and the University of Manchester.

Attitudes toward the police were extremely positive at the first wave and remained largely unchanged across the study window, despite it coinciding with the killing of George Floyd and subsequent BLM protests. By contrast, there was a rapid erosion of trust in the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

We surveyed the same group of people every three weeks during this period, to understand how their views about governmental institutions, and especially legal authorities, changed over time during the first COVID-19 lockdown and its direct aftermath. In this article we summarise the findings presented at our webinar and discuss their current relevance (the recordings from the webinar are available here).

Policing the Pandemic used the crowd-sourcing platform Prolific Academic to recruit 1,200 people from 10 metropolitan areas across Great Britain – Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield). The first wave went live on 21 April 2020, at the peak of the virus, and the last ended on 7 August 2020, during the summer grace period.

Attitudes toward the police were extremely positive at the first wave and remained largely unchanged across the study window, despite it coinciding with the killing of George Floyd and subsequent BLM protests.

By contrast, there was a rapid erosion of trust in the Government’s handling of the pandemic following the first wave of our survey, and a slow but steady decrease in perceptions of the clarity of the rules. Nevertheless, there was strong and consistent support for making social distancing a legal requirement.

Policing the lockdown restrictions

Throughout the first lockdown public discourse and much official communication centred on the need for collective action: to unite as a community, people needed to remain apart as individuals. Levels of compliance with lockdown regulations were remarkably high, and people seemed to be complying by consent rather than compulsion. But what factors underlay people’s lockdown compliance?

Our findings showed that social norms and the expressive value of the law (normative motivations) were the most important factors driving lockdown compliance. Informal rules governing behaviour bound people together, but this was underpinned by formal rules: a legal requirement to coordinate at the group level against a common threat. Fear of the virus, and fear of punishment, played very minor roles indeed.

What about cooperating in the fight against the pandemic in a more active sense? What factors promote engagement in social control activity; for example, intervening to tell people to go home, or calling the police if they saw people breaking social distancing rules?

How police officers treat people on a day-to-day basis has important implications for the acceptance or rejection of moves to grant new or extra powers, and it seems to be much more important than people’s views on what the powers might be used for.

We found that throughout the pandemic, many people maintained a sense of shared identity with both the NHS and the police. But it was solidarity with the police (not the NHS) that promoted social control activity: social control activity, even during a pandemic, seems to be framed through people’s relationship with police. And, importantly, those who perceived fair treatment at the hands of the police were more likely to develop the feelings of solidarity that promoted such behaviour.

People’s relationships with police also have important implications for their willingness to empower police in times of crisis. To empower police means to positively accept a development that grants them more power, including acceptance of the risk that this power may be misused.

We found that police legitimacy was central to the acceptance or rejection of new powers of enforcement and surveillance. Legitimacy, in turn, was rooted in people’s direct and indirect experiences with officers, and particularly whether those officers acted in respectful ways and made neutral and accountable decisions as they engaged in everyday policing.

How police officers treat people on a day-to-day basis has important implications for the acceptance or rejection of moves to grant new or extra powers, and it seems to be much more important than people’s views on what the powers might be used for. These findings highlight the importance of generating trust and legitimacy during the pandemic through consistent, fair and positive policing.

Fear of infection

Throughout Policing the Pandemic we found that instrumental concerns (eg, fear of contracting COVID-19) only played a backstage role in predicting lockdown compliance, social control activity, and support for police empowerment. However, worry about the virus can have important and real consequences.

We developed a way of measuring worry about COVID-19 that distinguishes between ‘functional fear’ (adaptive emotions that encourage proactive behaviours) and ‘dysfunctional fear’ (fear that damages quality of life and leads to ineffective or damaging behaviours).

Dysfunctional worry led to more negative outcomes – including more anxiety, anger, loneliness, unhappiness and lower life satisfaction – compared to those who were functionally worried or unworried. Functional worry also led to less negative outcomes compared to people who reported being unworried. Being under a stay-at-home order once again, exploring ways to reduce dysfunctional worry or to make worry ‘functional’ should be a key priority.

The new lockdown period

So how do all our findings translate to the situation now? Our study was conducted during the UK’s first lockdown and its easing over the summer. Going into the new period of enhanced restrictions, trust in government is lower. Compliance with track, trace and isolate will remain a big issue, particularly in terms of people’s responses to calls to isolate.

Legitimacy may also continue to be an important factor, and in the face of increased demands for police enforcement, it will be important for the police to maintain legitimacy through procedurally fair, light-touch policing.

Moreover, lockdown rules and law are much less clear: “A lockdown without much enthusiasm, you must stay at home but here are a hundred reasons you may not have to.” Added to this, there is a good deal of pressure on the police to ratchet up enforcement. And according to Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, those seen deliberately flouting the lockdown regulations should expect swifter punishment.

As the second lockdown begins, we expect that social norms will continue to play a role in encouraging compliance. Legitimacy may also continue to be an important factor, and in the face of increased demands for police enforcement, it will be important for the police to maintain legitimacy through procedurally fair, light-touch policing.

Increased enforcement would likely be counter-productive in the short term, generating defiance, and in the longer term, may undermine legitimacy in a wider sense. Instead, emphasis should continue to be placed on the first three Es, and police should rely on their existing toolkit, putting an increased focus on community and problem-oriented policing.

About the Authors

Dr Arabella Kyprianides is a Research Fellow in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL. She is currently leading UCL’s ethnographic strand of the ESRC funded project CONSIL. Her research interests include public trust, police legitimacy, social identity and compliance in the context of policing marginalised communities.

Dr Julia Yesberg is Research Fellow in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL. She is currently completing an ESRC-funded project exploring neighbourhood policing, collective efficacy, and violent crime. Her research interests include policing and public opinion, police use of force, violent crime, offender rehabilitation, and risk assessment.

Ben Bradford is Professor of Global City Policing in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL.He is also Director of the Institute for Global City Policing. His research interests include public trust, police legitimacy, social identity, cooperation and compliance in justice settings.

Jonathan Jackson is Professor in Research Methodology and Head of the LSE Department of Methodology. He is an Honorary Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School, an Affiliated Scholar in the Justice Collaboratory of Yale School, and also editor of the British Journal of Criminology and PLOSone.

Dr Krisztián Pósch is Lecturer in Security and Crime Science in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL. His research interests lie in the fields of quantitative methodology, policing, and justice perception.

 

Dr Reka Solymosi is Lecturer in Quantiative Methods at the University of Manchester. Her interests are in data analysis and visualisation, crowdsourcing, rstats, fear of crime, transport, and collecting data about everyday life. As a former crime analyst she is interested in practical applications to research.

Dr Zoe Hobson is a Researcher in the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL. Zoe has worked for MOPAC as a Research Analyst. She has worked on projects relating to police officer mental health, victim journeys through the criminal justice service, police body worn video cameras and gangs.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

 

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