Enforcing coronavirus laws has caused long term damage to the relationship between the public and the police, one of the country’s most senior officers has admitted.
James Vaughan, the chief constable of Dorset Police, said high profile incidents such as Derbyshire’s use of drones to monitor people and the handing out fines in error, had caused the police to suffer “some shrapnel”.
He said the police were in a difficult position because while there were those who felt they were being overzealous there were others who wanted them to take a tougher line.
Mr Vaughan said his fellow chief constables were “acutely aware” of the threat to their legitimacy that policing the pandemic had posed.
But he said officers were doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances and he believed the majority of the public were still behind them.
At the weekend Dorset Police came under fire when footage was uploaded to social media appearing to show a middle aged woman being arrested for allegedly sitting on a bench at Bournemouth seafront.
But Mr Vaughan said the incident was actually part of a pre-planned anti-lockdown protest which had been choreographed to make the police look bad.
He told the Telegraph: “We appealed to them [the protestors] last weekend to say ‘look guys we respect your right to freedom of speech and right to assembly but now is really not the time, it is too dangerous please don’t come, we have got other things we need to do’.
“Instead of giving us a break this weekend they decided to change their tactics and it just smacks of civil disobedience really.”
Dorset's chief constable has said policing the pandemic has been difficult for officers
Credit: Nick Capo
Mr Vaughan went on: “I was a bit angry and frustrated with these protesters on Saturday. All the while my officers were acting with utter courtesy and restraint.
“These are men and women who are human beings, they have families of their own. We are trying to operate as much as we can in policing in a Covid secure environment.
“We have had dozens of officers who have caught Covid. I have had a couple of officers who have been critically ill from it and brought back from the brink because of brilliant medical intervention.”
But he accepted policing had not always got it right and said the relationship with the public had been damaged as a result.
He said: "I think we have taken some shrapnel to be fair. When you look at drones in the Peak District, 90-year-olds being arrested, women walking their dogs getting fined.
“And then that is one extreme where we are told we are overzealous and then at the other end of the extreme you have those who say ‘nobody seemed to be bothered about Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion protests or statues being thrown in the river.
"The other extreme is that you are not doing enough and we are caught between the two really in terms of half the population seem to want us to take a very robust stance and the other half want us to take a proportionate stance so that is always the difficulty.
“We do enjoy white high levels of confidence from the public and we need to continue that after the pandemic and police chiefs across the country will be acutely aware that we cannot allow the policing of the pandemic to undermine our legitimacy in policing by consent afterwards and that is the fine line.”
The beaches in Dorset were packed with visitors in the summer
Mr Vaughan also said the police’s job had been made more difficult due to the confusion and lack of clarity around some aspects of the law, such as the distance people are permitted to travel to exercise.
“I don’t know what the rationale and thinking is in Government around why they have not been more prescriptive with travel guidance.
“It has been a bit tricky through all three lockdowns. It would probably be better if they said ‘look you can exercise everyday but stay local and unless there are exceptional circumstances we don’t expect you to be travelling a couple of miles from your house’.”
“We seem to have said ‘stay local’ and that means your village, your town, your part of the city but it is a bit vague and it leaves it open to abuse.”
However he also said at the weekend his officers had handed out fixed penalty notices to two groups of people who had driven from Coventry to visit Durdle Door.
"What I am saying locally is, if you have to think too hard about whether the journey you made to exercise was necessary, it probably wasn’t."
In line with his senior policing colleagues around the country, Mr Vaughan said his officers would be taking a more robust approach with those who deliberately flouted the law in the coming days and weeks.
“If you drive from Coventry to come to the beach you can expect to be turned around and given a ticket. If you hold a house party you will get a fine.
“For those who take blatant irresponsible actions we are going to move very much more quickly to enforcement,” he said.
Mr Vaughan also confirmed that his officers would be on hand to help retailers enforce rules requiring customer to wear face masks.