Police chiefs have asked the public to “cut us a little bit of slack” following criticism of heavy-handed tactics to enforce the Covid-19 lockdown.
Forces have been told to be “consistent” over their handling of new powers brought in after the Government introduced social-distancing measures last week.
Officers can fine or even arrest those flouting the rules under new legislation enacted last Thursday.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted there had been “one or two instances” of police being heavy-handed but said that, in the main, forces are being “sensible”.
Lancashire Police issued 123 fines for breaches of the rules over the weekend, while officers in Cheshire summonsed six people for various offences, including multiple people from the same house going out to buy “non-essential” items.
South Wales Police hit out at MP Stephen Kinnock for visiting his father, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, on his birthday; while the Derbyshire force dyed the Blue Lagoon in Buxton black to deter groups of people from gathering at the beauty spot.
Some forces, including South Yorkshire Police and Humberside Police, have launched online forms for the public to report people who appear to be flouting the rules, following claims that some police 101 numbers were being inundated last week with queries.
But West Midlands Police Chief Constable Dave Thompson said in a series of tweets on Tuesday that claims that Britain is becoming a “police state” are “widely off the mark”.
3/3 There have been a small number of cases I have seen where I think this could have been done differently. However comments re police state are widely off the mark. Time to be supporting the police as staff are doing a marvellous job in difficult circs.— Dave Thompson (@DaveThompsonCC) March 31, 2020
He told the PA news agency: “I think the public are trying to stick to this, which they are, and I think the general comments that have been made by experts and people, they just need to cut us a little bit of slack at the moment, it’s pretty tough.”
Mr Thompson, the head of Britain’s second largest force, said the use of the new powers has been “very, very limited”.
“Here in the West Midlands, where I serve three million people, we’ve used it twice,” he said.
“People have been summonsed regarding failing to follow the restrictions and in one of the cases someone wouldn’t give us their details, so they were arrested until they did, which we can do.
“They were people who were behaving utterly recklessly and unreasonably.”
He added: “I think we just need to calm down and say the onus is on you as a member of the public to follow this advice, the police are there to help the public do it. We won’t always get this perfectly right in every case.
“But recognise this is a difficult job and, while it’s hard for you to stay at home, PCSOs and police constables don’t have that choice when they’re out in the community and they have to go out and they are putting themselves in harm’s way and at high risk of infection.”
This is the first weekend we've had #StayHomeSaveLives guidance. Despite the nice weather, please limit your movements and only go out to:— Derbyshire Police (@DerbysPolice) March 28, 2020
â¢ Shop for necessities
â¢ Exercise once a day
â¢ For medical need/assist vulnerable people
â¢ Travel to/from work when absolutely necessary. pic.twitter.com/MSwYtGTdzu
Derbyshire Police Chief Constable Peter Goodman defended tactics used by his force, which included filming walkers with drones to deter visitors to the Peak District, and said the new powers have not been used once.
He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Of course, we need to find our way in all of this – and it’s difficult. When the regulations and the law only go so far, but then the advice from the Government goes a bit further, it leaves us in quite a difficult situation in terms of how we interpret that.
“My advice to my force is we want to do this by consent, we want to do this by explanation and conversation.”
Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police Bill Skelly said his officers have not needed to make any arrests, hand out any fines or disperse any large gatherings during the Government imposed lockdown.
He told PA: “The only time we have used the (enforcement) powers is where someone has been really violent and spat at our officers, and saying they have got Covid-19 and hoping the officers get it too.”
Guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing to forces said communities must receive a “consistent” level of service from officers along with a “single style and tone”, according to the BBC.
We know things are moving quickly with #Covid19, so weâve worked with @CollegeofPolice to explain what the new regulations actually mean, and how the police might deal with those who do not comply. Please share.— National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) (@PoliceChiefs) March 26, 2020
Learn moreâ¡ï¸https://t.co/Edrde9CGSs pic.twitter.com/IwnmONs4z3
And NPCC chairman Martin Hewitt said forces need to show consistency in encouraging people to follow the coronavirus restrictions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We will constantly be striving to achieve that level of consistency and we will be looking at the way the issues are being dealt with and the good practice as well as things we think maybe we wouldn’t want to do in that way.
“But we are going to have to learn as we go along because this is very challenging, the measures are unprecedented for anybody to be dealing with, both for the public and the police.”
Mr Shapps said it is “sensible” to promote consistency, telling BBC Breakfast: “I think the police are doing a difficult job.
“There will be one or two instances where they have perhaps not approached it in the right way but, in general, actually, across the country not only are people complying very well but, generally speaking, the police are taking a very sensible approach to it.”
Britain’s most senior police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick, has told her force only to use the new powers, which allow them to fine or arrest those who break lockdown laws, as a last resort.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said officers should strive to preserve the public’s confidence through persuasion and education, rather than automatic enforcement.
He called for the public to show understanding toward police, and for officers to “police by consent” as they are compelled to use powers he “never imagined a British police officer would be asked to use”.