Thinking of reporting someone’s lockdown behaviour? Think again

Getty Images / Jeff J Mitchell / Staff

It started with the runners. Less than three days after prime minister Boris Johnson put the UK on a coronavirus lockdown the first reports of people reporting their neighbours for breaking the rules surfaced. On March 26 Northamptonshire Police chief constable Nick Adderley said the force had received “dozens and dozens” of calls from people saying their neighbours had been out for a second run.

Since then the number of reports – through calls and online policing systems – has swelled as those on lockdown have become frustrated by others seemingly flouting the new rules. The longterm impact may change how surveillance is normalised and risks altering people’s relationships with the police.

Despite some initial confusion, the UK’s lockdown rules have now been clarified and are fairly straightforward. People should only leave their homes for exercise (the law doesn’t say how many times but it’s recommended only once per day), for essential work that can’t be completed from home, for medical care, and shopping for essentials. Everything else is off the cards: including gathering in groups and sunbathing in parks. Underpinning these legal requirements are the social distancing guidelines, which say people should stay at least two metres apart at all times. (All the rules are detailed in the regulations that accompany the Coronavirus Act 2020).

Such measures have, for some, proven problematic. Across the UK people have been seen cycling in groups, playing team sports, going to the houses of friends and family and enjoying the sunshine in groups. All while failing to stay more than two metres away from each other. And the extraordinary circumstances have prompted snitching. Peter Goodman, the chief of Derbyshire’s police, said around 11 per cent of the force’s 2,300 daily calls were about people’s lockdown behaviour.

In response, a number of police forces across the UK have launched dedicated websites where people can report details of suspicious activity. So far forces in Humberside, Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester, Avon and Somerset and the West Midlands have all created online reporting tools. These all work in similar ways. People are instructed to enter their name and address (although this can be optional), the time they believe a breach took place, what they saw and also to point out on a map where the potential infraction took place.

But why do police forces want this information – and what are they doing with it? Kris Christmann, a criminologist at the University of Huddersfield, says it’s unlikely they don’t want huge volumes of calls where people report their neighbours for minor breaches. “My suspicion is actually the authorities aren’t interested in knowing this. Why would they be?”

Christmann says the 43 police forces in England and Wales don’t have the resources to deal with large numbers of minor complaints – austerity in the UK has coincided with a drop in policing staff ofat least 15 per cent in the last decade. “It’s going to be a lot of junk information to the authorities,” Christmann explains.

Police forces that have created online reporting tools say they will only respond to the most serious incidents. This is likely to be larger gatherings – in the West Midlands a barbeque with more than 20 people in attendance was broken up and officers in Cambridgeshire have issued a warning after breaking up a “street party” held under lockdown.

In Manchester, police have said 1,132 lockdown breaches were reported over a four day period. These include 494 house parties, 166 street parties, 122 groups playing sports, 173 gatherings in parks and more than 100 incidents of antisocial behaviour.

Amid the flurry of online reporting, police forces do get one thing they can use to their advantage: data. They are able to understand where a large number of reports are coming from. Avon and Somerset Constabulary says on its website it will use the reports to “build a picture of where breaches are occurring” and use them to “inform our policing patrols”. In short: more police officers are likely to patrol areas where there has been a lot of reports of people gathering.

There’s also likely to be another reason why the online forms have been set up – to relieve the pressure on the non-emergency policing phone-line. “My conjecture would be the reason why they’ve set up the web pages and websites so people can anonymously report is because they don’t want people phoning the 101 number.”

“The public are urged to only report something if they feel there is a significant issue or breach which they think officers need to know about,” Cambridgeshire Police said after launching its online form. It said officers will not be sent out to deal with minor issues but encouraged people to report mass gatherings. Humberside also said its form was created to ease pressure on 101.

Despite the messages that police are not going to respond to the vast majority of reports, the peeking out from behind the curtains will continue. Christmann adds that humans are “very attuned” to identify cheaters and don’t like to see others doing things they cannot – whether morally or legally. “People are seeing people infringing the rules and they are calling it in,” he says. “It’s much more likely to happen across the middle classes as well.”

And it’s not just the UK. In both New Zealand and Germany tip-off websites have been inundated with reports.

“There is a tension that we need to recognise between civil liberties and people’s right to visit parks and open spaces – these places aren’t closed,” says Ronald Winch, a senior teaching fellow in policing at Birmingham City University and a former police officer with more than 30 years experience. “I think [the police] need to be proportionate in relation to neighbours phoning up and the settling of old scores with some neighbours.”

Winch says that the types of crime committed during lockdown will also have changed. Home burglaries, vehicle crime and policing drunken behaviour in towns and cities at night have all decreased. However, he stresses that domestic violence pressures on the police will have increased, particularly as many officers have to self-isolate due to showing coronavirus symptoms. Early reports from the lockdown show domestic abuse hotlines have received a 25 per cent increase in calls.

Jonathan Jackson, the head of Birmingham City University’s professional policing course, says fewer police could change how the police operate. “More illness within forces will likely lead to more dependence on technology to fill the gap,” he says. “The broader debate is around whether this will change policing styles,” Winch adds.

Some believe that the public’s relationship with police forces could change in the long-term when the coronavirus pandemic ends. There are potential surveillance implications too. Amazon’s Ring doorbells have increased the prevalence of home surveillance in recent years – in the US it has allowed neighbourhoods to provide footage from cameras to help with local policing.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised concerns of mission creep. Internal documents show the NHS coronavirus app could include functions that tell people to go home after an hour outside and also help provide immunity passports.

Civil liberties group Privacy International says it is monitoring surveillance privatisation and outsourcing. “Any effort by the police to divert from traditional and transparent crime reporting mechanisms is extremely concerning to us,” says Ioannis Kouvakas, a legal officer at Privacy International. “While we need to do our best to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, we also need to make sure that the pandemic will not provide governments and the police specifically with opportunities to unlawfully exploit our data for the years to come.”

Winch, whose time in the police included senior command roles, says that when the lockdown eventually ends the way people’s relationship with the state exists will need to be carefully looked at. “Whatever normality we return to, we must guard that very, very carefully in terms of civil liberties and policing style,” he says.

Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1

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