BAME People Disproportionately Targeted By Coronavirus Fines

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People of colour are paying the price of arbitrary policing.

Reports Mirren Gidda, Liberty Investigates journalist, with additional reporting by Mattha Busby, Guardian journalist.

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Three days after the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, the government passed a set of regulations that gave police forces across the country the power to fine people not following the new rules. Passed with a speed that surprised even the police, the new powers caught members of the public unaware and left it to individual forces to decide how to use them. As enforcing lockdown became a matter of police discretion, examples of heavy-handed policing—from Derbyshire’s drone patrols to Devon and Cornwall’s roadblocks—quickly emerged.

For people of colour within the UK, the fines’ implementation was alarming. “The concern for us was around… how the police would decide who gets the fines,” says Katrina Ffrench, CEO of Stopwatch, which campaigns against disproportionate policing. “We know which ethnic groups tend to come into contact with the police, and so we were concerned about the disproportionate impact the fines could have on people of colour.”

Ffrench was right to worry. Between 27 March and 11 May, English police forces handed out 13,445 of the fines, also known as Fixed Penalty Notices. Exclusive data analysis by Liberty Investigates and the Guardian has found out that people of colour were 54% more likely to be fined than white people, with around 2,218 fines being meted out to BAME people and 7,865 to white people. The finding comes amid greater confusion around the changes to lockdown rules and new police powers to fine first-time offenders £100 and up to £3,200 for repeat offences.

13,445 Fines handed out by English police forces

54% More likely to be fined if you are a person of colour

£100 Fine for first time offenders

On 15 April, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), which helps coordinate UK operational policing, published the first set of figures on the fines. In a news release, the NPCC stated that 16% of the fines had gone to Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, broadly in line with the ethnic makeup of England, which is around 15.5% BAME, according to 2016 population estimates.

By the time publication of the second release rolled around on 30 April, the NPCC had dropped its proportionality claim, although it continued to assert that only 16% of the fines issued by English police forces had gone to BAME people. For its third release, which was published on 15 May, the NPCC stopped mentioning ethnicity data entirely, instead relegating it to an accompanying PDF.

The third release corrected a significant error in the NPCC’s previous datasets. For both the first set of figures (27 March to 13 April) and the second set of figures (27 March to 27 April), the NPCC had failed to account for the high number of people—around a quarter of all fines—who did not identify their ethnicity. Claiming, as the NPCC did, that 16% of fines went to BAME people assumes that all of the people who did not identify their ethnicity were white. This is highly unlikely, not least because, as Ffrench observes, it is likely to be ethnic minorities who refuse to disclose their ethnicity to the police, lest they or the wider demographic be stigmatised.

22%

of fines went to BAME people in England, who make up 15.5% of the population

A far more accurate picture can be obtained by removing the non-identifiers from the tally of fines and recalculating the percentages of those who did identify their ethnicities. The results show that for the first set of figures, 20.8% of fines went to people of colour; in the second set, 21.3%. For the final set of data, which spans the time period 27 March to 11 May, the tally was up to 22%—a calculation provided by the NPCC, which had finally published ethnicity data with the non-identifying group removed. Not only does this show a slow creep in fines being meted out to people of colour, all three percentages are significantly higher than the 15.5% BAME population percentage of England, which the NPCC had used as its yardstick.

Taken at face value, the figures indicate significant disproportionality in the way English police forces are treating people of colour. Further data analysis indicates that the situation is even worse.

Breaking Down the Numbers

One notable thing about the fines is how many have been issued by smaller police forces, which operate in more rural areas. Between 27 March and 11 May, North Yorkshire police issued 843 fines, the third-highest number across England and Wales. By comparison, London’s Metropolitan Police, which has 21 times as many officers as North Yorkshire, issued 906 fines.

There’s another difference between North Yorkshire and London besides police force size. North Yorkshire police serve a population of more than 800,000 people while the Metropolitan police serve more than 8 million. That means comparing the number of fines issued to people of colour with the BAME population of England is misleading, since it assumes that each police force issued fines proportionate to its population size.

Liberty Investigates has instead run its own calculations, working out how many fines would be proportionate for each force to issue to people of colour, based on its regional demographics. Taking North Yorkshire, of the 843 total fines it issued, just 29 should have gone to people of colour, given the region’s low BAME population of 3.4%. Once these proportionate figures are tallied, a clearer sense emerges of how many fines people of colour should have received. For 27 March to 11 May, people of colour should have received 1,157 fines, 11.58% of the 13,445 fines handed out—and a percentage much lower than England’s 15.5% BAME population. In reality, police handed out 2,218 fines.

For Wales, where the BAME population is around 4.5%, a total of 799 fines have been issued. Similar calculations for the same time period show that it would have been proportionate for 26 fines to go to people of colour. Instead, 72 did.

 

 

There is a final piece of analysis that can be done to the fines data, and it concerns the one-quarter of individuals who didn’t give their ethnicity, a chunk of whom would have been people of colour. Michael Shiner, associate professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of Social Policy suggests that the most appropriate way of handling this group is to assume that the non-identifiers follow the same ethnic makeup as the identifiers. By Shiner and Liberty Investigates’ calculations, this means that as many as 2,957 fines may have gone to people of colour, a 90% increase on the 1,557 that would have been proportionate.

90%

more fines may have gone to people of colour than would have been proportionate

The NPCC told Liberty Investigates that it is aware of the issues around proportionality and that it will be publishing the force-level ethnicity breakdown of the fines, something it previously told Liberty Investigates it doesn’t hold. It added that the data that has been published is not subject to the same “stringent analysis and quality assurance” as official statistics and that’s why Liberty Investigates “found some changes in presentation”. The NPCC said that it is seeking advice on Liberty Investigates’ analysis, which it was provided with on 18 May. It added that Liberty Investigates’ analysis, which has been looked over by an independent third party, is “based on a number of assumptions that are unlikely to be correct” and asked Liberty to wait for it to publish further data, although no timeframe was given for this.

Discriminatory Policing

The apparent ethnic disproportionality of the fines calls into question whether they have been issued fairly. One case in which FPNs were issued, apparently incorrectly, was that of Shazia Zahieer and Tayyba Arif, two women of colour who are sisters and members of the same household. Zahieer suffers from anxiety and depression and, during a bad episode, had driven a short distance with her sister to Preston’s Riverside Docks to go for a walk. While still in the car, they were stopped and fined by Lancashire police, a charge the police withdrew a month later, following a challenge by the law firm Bindmans.

“The police accused us of purposely putting others at risk and proceeded to issue [the fines],” Zahieer says. “During this incident they threatened to take me to the police station if I failed to produce any ID (thankfully I had a copy of my driver’s licence with me). I tried to explain to them that we were out because I needed to calm myself down but my protests fell on deaf ears. My anxiety increased and I felt unsafe. The event greatly upset me and it has shaken my trust in the police.”

Of Zahieer and Arif’s case, a spokesperson for Lancashire police told Liberty Investigates: “We reviewed this Fixed Penalty Notice and are satisfied it was issued correctly, however we have taken the women’s personal circumstances into account and on this occasion decided not to proceed with it.”

“The police accused us of purposely putting others at risk and proceeded to issue [the fines]... I tried to explain to them that we were out because I needed to calm myself down but my protests fell on deaf ears.”

Shazia Zahieer

Although Zahieer and Arif’s case indicates that some of the fines may have been issued unreasonably, it is difficult to get a sense of the potential scale of the problem. “Many people, even the innocent, will choose the easier, often cheaper option of paying the penalty specified in the Fixed Penalty Notice… rather than risk magistrates’ court proceedings, which can be stressful, costly, and, as we have seen, may result in miscarriages of justice,” Patrick Ormerod, the sisters’ lawyer says.

In an attempt to identify these injustices, a group of lawyers and NGOs, which includes Liberty, wrote to the NPCC on 20 May to call for a review into the issuing of Fixed Penalty Notices, which could help explain the ethnic disparities within them. That same day, the Joint Committee on Human Rights called for a similar review. This is something that Wiltshire Police has already started to do, rescinding 13 fines as of 7 May.

But the fines are only part of the story. Under lockdown, other incidents of potentially discriminatory policing towards people of colour have prompted concern from police monitoring groups like Netpol and Stopwatch.

41 forces in England and Wales have submitted a requests for a total of 8,155 tasers for officers

In May, the Metropolitan police force tasered a black man as he jumped over a wall, leaving him paralysed from the waist down, while Greater Manchester Police tasered a black man, Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara, in front of his young, screaming son. (Mombeyarara has since issued a lawsuit against the chief constable of Greater Manchester police). Shortly after these two incidents, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which oversees the police complaints system in England and Wales said it was concerned “about disproportionate use of Taser against black people”. (The Metropolitan Police said Tasers are fired 9% of the time and rarely result in injury, but it welcomes closer working with the IOPC. Greater Manchester said it voluntarily referred Mombeyarara’s case to the IOPC and that it’s committed to fairness and equality.)

“This was often far more about sending a tough public order message than about genuine disease prevention and [has] routinely resulted in the arbitrary use of police powers.”

Kevin Blowe

People of colour appear to have been disproportionately targeted in other police responses to coronavirus. One of the first uses of police powers under the Coronavirus Act, which is a separate piece of legislation to that covering the fines, was used incorrectly against a black woman, Marie Dinou. And, as Netpol has observed, stop and searches in London have surged by 22% under lockdown, with stops of black people increasing by 7.2 per 100,000 people to 9.3 per 100,000 people.  The Metropolitan Police told Liberty Investigates that stop and search has increased due to lockdown making “suspicious activity” more visible and because more officers have been assigned to frontline duties.

But campaigners say things have gone too far. “It [is] now clear that instead of implementing the law, British policing has interpreted public health regulations in the way they thought the government wanted them to,” says Kevin Blowe, Coordinator for Netpol. “This was often far more about sending a tough public order message than about genuine disease prevention and [has] routinely resulted in the arbitrary use of police powers.”

As the data shows, it seems it is people of colour who are paying the price of this arbitrary policing.

Download full data analysis (Excel)
A version of this article was also published in The Guardian.