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April 1, 2020 Reading Time: 3 minutes
Police State Drone

The political blog Guido Fawkes wrote yesterday: “Since the lockdown came into force last week, along with the emergency powers act being passed, it’s not gone unnoticed by the public that the police have gone ever so slightly maniacal with power.” Guido is right. He continued: a number of police forces are “allowing newly-received powers to go to their heads [and] going far beyond their legislated-for powers.”

Examples include:

  • South Wales Police attempted to shame MP Stephen Kinnock for dropping off essential supplies for his parents on his father’s 78th birthday, before having a brief, socially-distanced chat, singing him Happy Birthday and then going off;
  • Dyeing a beautiful local lake black to deter tourists;
  • Dictating to shop owners what are the essential items they can sell;
  • Telling off shop owners for chalking two-meter lines outside their shops to enforce customer social-distancing; and
  • Claiming outdoor exercise is limited to one hour.

But my favourite example is this. To quote the BBC:

“A force that released drone footage of people walking in the Peak District has been accused of “nanny policing.”  Derbyshire Police filmed people in pairs rambling in the Curbar Edge area of the beauty spot on Wednesday and then released footage on social media. Officers said travelling to remote areas for exercise did not count as “essential travel” as permitted under government lockdown rules.”

Here is the lovely picture they took:

Big Brother Watch responded that filming members of the public and publishing footage online was “sinister [and] counter-productive …  The new regulations in place as of yesterday do not prohibit driving to a place for the purpose of exercise.”

But people are allowed to congregate in pairs and the rules do not stipulate how far they can travel locally to engage in healthful activities.

BBW are right. What these people were doing was not unlawful.

A confession: I could have been one of them. A couple of days earlier, my wife and I went for a drive-plus-exercise in the Peak District (we live in Sheffield) and I was actually thinking of Curbar Edge. On the way there, we saw another quiet spot so we stopped there and went for a walk. As we walked, we encountered a small number of other people. Everyone greeted everyone else and everyone kept their distance. It was all most pleasant and I felt a lot better for it. Doubtless everyone else felt the same. It’s amazing how socially responsible people can be without the need for the police to nag them unnecessarily.

The police have important work to do. So they should get on with it and not undermine their authority and reputation by abusing the powers entrusted to them. Otherwise we the people, whom they serve, will lose respect for them, and we really don’t want to go down that route.

Thankfully, this morning’s press has headlines (e.g., here) about former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption wading in on this issue. He told Radio 4’s World At One yesterday the use of drones to film walkers in the Peak District was “disgraceful” and “shamed our policing traditions.”

“The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command,” he said.

“The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences but only legal regulations which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance.”

We don’t yet live in a police state. Or perhaps we do.

It is an ancient principle of the rule of law in this country that what is not expressly prohibited is lawful. Government advice is just that, good or bad and I grant that it is mostly sensible. But it is not for the police to misinterpret the law as they see fit or to enforce government advice.

On the other hand, it is their duty to enforce the law as it is.

When the police exceed their authority, we no longer live under the Rule of Law.

In any case, it would be nice to be able to take a nice socially isolating fully legal walk in the country without being harassed by Plod on a power trip.

Kevin Dowd

Kevin Dowd is an economist with interests in monetary systems and macroeconomics, financial risk measurement and management, risk disclosure, policy analysis, and pensions and mortality modelling.

He is Professor of Finance and Economics at Durham University Business School.

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