Rising to the policing challenge of COVID-19: Looking beyond the crisis

George Alders Global Government Security Network, Director, PwC Netherlands 13 May, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, health service workers are on the front line. But close behind them are police forces, which are often thrust into new roles as they engage and enforce new policies and laws governing societal behaviours.

Social distancing, restrictions on movement within and between countries, and new rules and regulations on who can work, and from where, have turned lives upside down. These developments have added new tasks for police organisations. And they have changed the demands on, and expectations of, policing at a time when resources are already stretched — in part due to absenteeism directly caused by COVID-19. In addition, police organisations must deal with operational duties while protecting themselves against infection.

While much operational policing has to be on the street, forces around the world are having to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions about where work can be done.

The focus has rightly fallen in the first place on the immediate response to the crisis. Policing had already been changing as the world has become more connected. But this pandemic has accelerated the need to become future-proofed. As it is in many other organisations, technology is playing a role in the police response. Police forces must adapt rapidly to a more digital way of working, an issue we discussed in our report, Policing in a networked world. While much operational policing has to be on the street, forces around the world are having to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions about where work can be done. Just as doctors are surprising themselves with the quality and productivity of video consultations (with appropriate safeguards and caveats), so too police are learning how much crime fighting can be done remotely through online surveillance. These enforced circumstances offer transformational opportunities for the way policing organisations see themselves.

Forces are also responding to the impact of the pandemic as it changes the nature of criminal activity. Since many people have had to stay at home, some aspects of criminal activity have proliferated indoors. Domestic violence and child abuse have been areas in which increases have been noted. With less social interaction outside the closest family, these kinds of crime become more difficult to identify and intervene in. For victims, the lockdown makes it more difficult to get away and to alert the authorities. In the UK, the Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 25% rise in calls in less than three weeks after the introduction of lockdown measures. In France, calls to the child abuse hotline — Allo Enfance en Danger — saw a 20% increase in the three weeks after March 17. And in early April, the French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30% in domestic violence. In Canada, Federal consultations show a 20 to 30% increase in rates of gender-based violence and domestic violence in some regions of the country. As worrying is the significant drop in calls reporting suspected child abuse in some jurisdictions, with the traditional monitoring systems, such as schools and childcare centres, not in place. In March, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in the US documented about 4,200 reports on its suspected-child-abuse reporting system, compared with 5,218 reports the year before. The drop was even more dramatic in early April, with 662 reports in the first week, compared with 1,352 in the same period in 2019. “These numbers are alarming because of the magnitude of the decline,” according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva.

As huge numbers of people move to digital platforms for work and social interaction, we are also seeing a shift in cybercrime. For instance, in Norway multiple public and non-public mobile health apps are being rapidly launched to track COVID-19 in society, sparking concerns over safety and privacy matters. In the UK, bogus ‘coronavirus tracker’ apps have been identified, which threaten to infect devices with malware, while new scams impersonate government departments, health organisations and videoconferencing services. Meanwhile, some forms of criminal activity have also declined — for example, stricter border controls and less international mobility has brought the unintended benefit of hindering the international drug trade, although trade in illicit fake COVID-19 medicine has become a new challenge.

The pandemic has strengthened, if not accelerated, the need for more collaborative ways of working and partnerships within and across the public and private sectors, moving towards a more inclusive approach that embeds societal responsibility.

Clearly, the first task for police leaders and their staff is to focus on these immediate challenges. But in doing so, it is important to look to the long term and learn quickly as the crisis unfolds. In this context, the pandemic has strengthened, if not accelerated, the need for more collaborative ways of working and partnerships within and across the public and private sectors, moving towards a more inclusive approach that embeds societal responsibility. For example, in Canada, the pandemic has accelerated many police services’ adoption of collaborative working technologies to enable those members of their workforce who are now working remotely. Rolling out additional collaboration tools, adding additional bandwidth to enable VPN and instituting digital-only processes are just a few of the ways that these changes have manifested themselves. These processes and technologies are now being considered as part of Canadian policing services’ business as usual post-COVID-19.

In the Netherlands, the police and the Prosecutor Services run a programme aimed at making policing and prosecution future-proof. A variety of innovative initiatives have been started to work together in alliances with other public and private sector organisations in relation to financial and economic crime, forensic policing and cybercrime, and the use of AI and Big Data analysis in policing. These farsighted initiatives could have an even bigger impact during and after the pandemic.

A further significant challenge in some countries is to retain public trust through and beyond the crisis. This requires policing to be sensitive to the local context, with greater situational awareness by police officers on the ground and more effective communications campaigns and dialogue with the public and businesses regionally and nationally. This starts at the highest level. For example, in South Africa a Command Council chaired by the president has been established, followed by an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the minister of health. Both these structures have the minister of police as a key member, and the police commissioner is involved during the daily media briefings.

Retaining public trust in policing will also hinge on how long the public lockdown lasts and how the world looks like on the other side of the pandemic. For instance, in the UK, where there is a tradition of policing by consent, the tactical response to the pandemic of ‘Engage, Explain, Educate and Enforce’ places police officers into a different space of social control, such as on when it is, and is not, appropriate for the public to be outside their homes. This creates issues of consistency in the interpretation of the rules. If the UK police forces get this wrong and their actions are seen to be, in the words of the UK’s Home Secretary, “heavy-handed,” their future role after the crisis stabilises may become harder to undertake if public trust has been eroded.

Where dialogue and communications are done well, and police actions are aligned to policy and reassure the public, the result will be increased trust generated through closer participation and engagement of citizens as well as private organisations in the policing process. While there will be no return to ‘business as usual’ anytime soon, listening to the public, communicating effectively and collaborating in public–private partnerships will provide a great opportunity for the police to come out of this crisis stronger, better able to police in a networked world, and ultimately deliver greater safety and security to their communities.

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George Alders

Global Government Security Network, Director, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 88 792 32 85

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