COVID-19: Policing is not an emergency public health strategy

NSW Police. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tensions are rising in Greater Sydney as the eight week-long lockdown is set to continue for another month at least. The majority of people are complying with stay-at-home orders so the heavy-handed law enforcement approach being taken by the New South Wales government is something of an affront.

Most are willing to forgo “freedoms” during a lockdown to avert a much greater public health crisis, like that dished out by the COVID-19 Delta variant in India, Indonesia and the re-emerging chaos in the United States.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, instead of offering support to people to remain at home rather than having to leave to work, authorities are throwing more police at the problem, as well as hiking penalties and deploying the army.

There is also the obvious bias in the recent outbreak response: restrictions were lax when the virus was thought to be confined to the affluent east, but a massive police operation descended upon the poorer, multicultural south west when the virus was detected there.

Indeed, from the ever-changing rules and restrictions to the disparities in approach taken by state authorities to the in-your-face deployment of the militarised NSW Police Force, the onset of COVID-19 policing has been a blunt tool.

UNSW Faculty of Law senior lecturer Dr Vicki Sentas told Green Left that authorities have been quick to deploy police during the pandemic.

“Across Australia, the approach to policing COVID-19 has been classic high-visibility, public order policing based on enforcing breaches of new criminal offences largely through hefty fines, directions, searches but also arrest and charge.

“The key question is whether policing is actually the best way to support public health objectives to stop the spread of the virus,” Sentas said.

Sentas is a co-author of Policing Biosecurity: Police Enforcement of Special Measures in NSW and Victoria During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which outlines that a policing-first policy of the complex pandemic situation has led to its own “social harms”. It has also exacerbated existing prejudices held by police.

Further, it found that in the three months to June 15 last year, First Nations peoples accounted for 10% of those searched in NSW following a COVID-19 stop, with 15% of those then arrested.

This represents a large number of First Nations peoples in custody, given they make up just 3% of the population.  

Sentas said COVID-19 policing is a form of security policing. It is based on “pre-emptively acting on threats and risks before they materialise, containing threats by identifying risky targets, which is largely based on longstanding ideas about race, class and gender standing in as proxies for risk”.

Contradictory signals

In the case of a public health crisis, emergency powers contained in section 7 of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW) are triggered. This allows the health minister to issue public health orders (PHO) – containing new laws — without parliamentary oversight.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has issued a suite of PHOs since March last year. A key concern is that, along with the pandemic, public health laws are ever-changing. This leaves many confused or unaware as to when they are breaching restrictions.

Sydney University associate professor of criminology, law and society Greg Martin told Green Left that changing or vague messages are confusing.

“One of the major issues is that the enforcement messaging that’s coming across is vague,” Martin said. “So, stay-at-home might be clear on one level, but then there are reasons to go outside.”

Public Health (COVID-19 Additional Restrictions for Delta Outbreak) Order (No 2) 2021 is one of the orders currently in force.

It requires people to carry a mask and ID with proof of address at all times, or risk a steep fine. However, many are still unaware of the new laws.

“There’s a contradictory set of signals being given by the authorities, politicians and police,” Martin said. “On the one hand, we’re being told it’s a health issue. But, on the other, we’re being told it’s an enforcement issue.

“What it really tells us is that the situation in NSW is out of control.”

Tightening the grip

As case numbers reached an all-time high on August 14, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller announced an escalation of fines and policing. The already draconian $1000 fine for a breach of a PHO was hiked to up to $5000, new and tighter restrictions on movement were imposed and police were deployed to step up traffic stops.

Questioned about the science behind the new restrictions on being outdoors, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian conceded that they were not evidence based, but were simply being applied at the request of NSW Police.

Martin said that 2020 data showed that “there’s an inverse relationship between fines and COVID cases”, as wealthier suburbs with higher infections had lower instances of fining, while less affluent areas with high migrant populations and more COVID-19 cases received a higher rate of infringement notices.

“The policing during COVID-19 demonstrates the [NSW government’s] continuation of [a policy of] over policing certain communities,” he said.

The COVID-19 police state

According to NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge, “NSW has put the police in charge of the pandemic response for the last 12 months” and it isn’t working. “We can’t police our way out of a pandemic.”

The government did not turn to law enforcement when the pandemic got too much to handle. Rather, it sought out the police from the onset of the virus outbreak, to the extent that it placed police commissioner Mick Fuller in complete control of the COVID-19 operation in March last year.

And, as the numbers have increased since August 14, the police have again been given even more powers.

From August 23, new laws allow the police commissioner to close entire apartment blocks to assess COVID-19 risk. He can also declare residential premise to be a “COVID-risk premises” and require all residents to undergo compliance checks.

A curfew from 9pm to 5am has also been imposed in 11 local government areas, all in Sydney’s western and south-western suburbs.

“We need thousands of social workers, nurses and public health officials reaching out to residents to help them get through this,” Shoebridge said, rather than thousands of police intimidating residents.

“We need resources so people stay at home safely and not have to go to work because they’re fearful about their economic survival.”

[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist who writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]