Police racial bias played role in UK Covid fines regime, says report

Researchers say institutional racism probably contributed to ‘differential approach’ to enforcement of powers

Bias in policing at least partly explains why minority ethnic people were more likely to receive fines for Covid breaches than their white counterparts, research says.

The study, seen by the Guardian, was based on in-depth interviews with officers who policed the streets. The officers spoke confidentially to academics from Liverpool University and served in forces in northern England, including Cheshire, Cumbria, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.

Nationally, figures for England and Wales show minority ethnic people were almost twice as likely to be fined than white people.

An author of the study says the findings show institutional racism probably affected how the pandemic powers were executed in some instances.

Officers had hastily drafted powers to fine people without good excuse for not being at home as instructed by the government. Some officers spoke of believing certain minority ethnic groups were more likely to defy the rules, without having any foundation for this belief.

Some officers also focused on minority ethnic groups more usually on the receiving end of police attention as potential suspects.

Police chiefs wanted fines issued as a last resort, with people coming under suspicion encouraged to obey the rules before any fine was issued. The approach police took, the study says, “legitimised a differential approach to enforcement that reflected pre-existing biases in policing, including biases in beliefs about which types of people are more likely to break the rules and deserve and require punishment to secure their compliance with the restrictions”.

The study said: “Many of our participants had developed their own ideas and generalisations about how different ethnic groups were behaving in relation to the Covid restrictions and, in some cases, the reasons for any differences between groups.”

Some officers told researchers that minority ethnic people were more visible to police because they lived in “poor” or “problematic” areas where police presence tends to be higher, or because they were more likely to live in smaller, more overcrowded houses with less outdoor space, the study said.

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Officers told of how tricky it was to enforce the rules, which changed frequently, with one saying: “It was nigh on impossible to police it how we were told to police it.”

Liz Turner, the co-author of the report, said biases and attitudes already in policing were applied to enforcing the pandemic rules: “What we found was suggestive of the likelihood that institutional racism was at work.”

She added: “There was a reversion to a business-as-usual mindset, a mindset that the problematic groups more likely to break Covid rules were those groups already viewed with suspicion.”

One officer told the study: “Without trying to sound like the racist white cop, there’s a lot more breaches in that area. There’s a lot more committed by Asian males than any other ethnicity.”

Another of the 32 officers who talked in depth for the study said: “I’ve tended to find that the Asian community on the division are more likely to be obstructive and less likely to take the advice.”

Turner said: “There is no evidence of ethnic minority groups more visibly flouting the rules than other groups. There was unwitting discrimination built into the processes of the organisation. None of the officers said anything they felt was outlandish in terms of bias.”

Officers talked of issuing fines based less on the risk of rule breaking spreading the disease, and more because they felt people were not respecting their authority. Turner said: “There was not a lot of focus on the risk from the disease. It was: ‘There are these people flouting the rules and not accepting our authority to make them follow the rules.’”

Andy George, the president of the National Black Police Association, said: “Of course there was bias there in how they interact with communities. It highlights the stereotypes and biases there are about ethnic minority communities. It is worrying.”

In June 2020 the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it would carry out research to explain the disproportionality – the term used to describe when one ethnic group experiences a police power more than another, without necessarily meaning any bias was involved.

The NPCC declined further comment.


Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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