'People know if they're pushing it' - How city police are enforcing lockdown rules
- Credit: Danielle Booden
'The new normal' is a phrase which has been used a lot in the last year, as people changed their daily routines to work around restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
More than most, it describes perfectly the current role of police officers, who have been forced to juggle their usual crime-related duties with policing a pandemic.
We joined Sgt Chris Clay and Pc Sam Smerdon of the Norwich East team on a patrol of the city centre on Wednesday, January 13.
While carrying out their duties in Norwich Market, St Stephens Street and Chapelfield Gardens, Sgt Clay described the difficulty of enforcing the rules while still fighting crime.
He said: "We're trying to maintain a balance between policing the pandemic, but also maintaining a response to crime and anti-social behaviour issues that are nothing to do with any of that.
"In fact, some of the reporting of crime has gone up because a lot of people are working from home and so issues like drug dealing and things like that are more obvious to them."
After encouraging a group of four men chatting at Norwich Market to keep their distance, Sgt Clay described the process of how and when officers used their powers.
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"The approach is, in many ways, the same as it has been all along, which is engagement, convincing and reasoning with people. Even though there has been a lot of talk around enforcement and tickets, as it stands most people get on board when you reason with them.
"We go into it with an awareness that we're now 10 months in – we all know the situation, even if not the finer points and the nuances."
Officers are aware of the criticism levelled at them by some people online, such as those saying police are too heavy-handed in their approach to enforcing Covid rules.
PC Smerdon said it did not distract them from their work, but it could be difficult to deal with – especially when they encountered similar abuse in the real world.
One example from Tuesday included a man who called her a "Nazi" when police handed out a fine for breaching lockdown rules, and even performed a Nazi salute.
Sgt Clay said he and his fellow officers did not want to be enforcing these rules, but were doing so "because there is a bigger picture".
"It's quite clear and simple: the NHS is really in trouble right now and we're going to have to do something about it. That's where me and my officers come from.
"It's not that we're going around because we're enjoying our extra powers, because none of us signed up to police a pandemic. When speaking to people, although we're very patient, we're also quite blunt about the fact that this is why we're doing it."
On Tuesday evening, Home Secretary Priti Patel backed tougher enforcement from police, with "a minority of people putting the public's health at risk".
When asked about how this would change the way that officers go about their day-to-day duties, Sgt Clay said they would still use their discretion to engage and explain the rules, but that process would be "much shorter" now that people knew the rules.
"It will still mean engage, encourage, educate and then move to enforce, but I think we've gone through a process of massive explanation now.
"There have been times in the past year when we've gone to great lengths with that explanation, but now the message we're getting is that a lot of that is done now.
"No-one is going to get a ticket the minute we stand to talk to them – there will still be that period of encouragement – but it will be much shorter now."
And when asked about the lack of clarity over what exactly "local" meant when it came to the rules around exercising, the sergeant urged people to use their common sense and use areas close to home.
"We take into consideration people's personal circumstances, like where they live and what other options they have. It's very difficult, because the guidance is different to the law.
"The average person has a sense of right and wrong, and I think they know if they're pushing it."