A major increase in attacks on police has been recorded during the pandemic, according to official figures revealing that there were more than 100 assaults on officers in England and Wales every day.
With senior police figures warning that officers have faced deliberate spitting and coughing since the start of the crisis, it has emerged that there were 36,969 assaults on police in the year that followed the outbreak in March 2020. It represented a 20% rise on the previous year
The increase was largely as a result of a rise in assaults on a police officer “without injury”, which increased by 21% from the previous year, with 25,734 incidents over the period. This is the category in which instances of spitting and other deliberate violations of social distancing are recorded.
However, assaults on police officers leading to injury were also up 1% from the previous year, to 11,235 offences.
The most assaults, with or without injury, took place on officers in London, with the Met recording 6,419 incidents. The force was followed by West Yorkshire with 2,160 and Kent with 1,594 assaults.
The rise comes amid evidence of low morale within the 43 forces in England and Wales. A survey last year by the Police Federation revealed that 65% of respondents reported the Covid-19 crisis has had a negative impact on their morale and 76% felt unfairly paid for the risks and responsibilities of their job during the pandemic. The government has said that pay will be frozen in 2021-22, which amounts to a real-terms cut.
There are also long-running concerns about the mental health of officers. A wide-ranging 2019 survey of officers by Cambridge University found that one in five had symptoms consistent with PTSD. Two-thirds of those suffering were unaware that they could have the disorder. John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation, said that throughout the pandemic his members had been exposed to a “disgusting level of violence”.
“We now have the figures to prove just how dire the situation has been for my colleagues on the ground,” he said. “More than 100 of my colleagues are assaulted every single day, that’s a staggering number and something society must not accept. Many of these recorded attacks involve vile individuals who have spat on or coughed at police officers, weaponising the virus and threatening to spread it to them and their families.
“The sentencing guidelines have been changed and I would urge judges and magistrates to use these powers to set an example to those who are assaulting our colleagues, those responsible must spend time in prison. This unjustified violence is a stain on society and needs to be dealt with robustly.”
Sarah Jones, shadow policing minister, called for greater protection for police. “Officers have shown incredible bravery serving at the frontline throughout the pandemic, while facing unacceptable violence and abuse, only to be rewarded with an insulting pay freeze,” she said. “The impact of running into danger and serving the public on police officers cannot be underestimated. The government must take real action to improve the standard of wellbeing support for police across the country.”
The Home Office said being attacked should never be part of an officer’s job and that anyone guilty of such offences would soon face stiffer sentences, adding: “Anyone who commits these despicable assaults should expect to face the full force of the law, which is why we are doubling the maximum sentence for those who assault emergency workers.
“This year, as well as continuing to recruit 20,000 additional police officers, we will enshrine a police covenant in law to provide better support for our selfless officers, staff, and their families – one of the key areas of focus will be the physical protection of officers.”