Police Forces in England and Wales up to seven times more likely to fine BAME people in lockdown

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FOI requests highlight disproportionate policing practices across the country

Reports Mirren Gidda, Liberty Investigates journalist with additional reporting by Vikram Dodd, Guardian journalist

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Since the lockdown formally began on the evening of 23 March, police forces across England and Wales have issued close to 18,000 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to people who have allegedly violated the new rules. These were set out within the terms of The Health Protection Regulations 2020, which came into force on 26 March. Over recent weeks, the police have come under criticism for ethnic disproportionality in the fines, which was first revealed by Liberty Investigates and the Guardian. Our analysis showed that BAME people were 54% more likely to be fined than white people, suggesting that some of the fines may have been issued unfairly.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), which helps coordinate UK operational policing, has published information about the fines every two weeks. Although the NPCC has consistently provided data on the fines broken down by police force, it has only provided a general outline of ethnicity breakdowns for the fines. The high number of FPNs issued by rural forces with low BAME populations, such as North Yorkshire and Dorset, has prompted calls for the NPCC to release the ethnicity data by police force.

Among the most vocal in calling for detailed ethnicity data was the Home Affairs Select Committee. Its chair, Yvette Cooper, tweeted that she had asked the NPCC for this breakdown. So too had Tola Munro, President of the National Black Police Association, which promotes better race relations and equality of opportunity within the UK’s police services. At the time of writing, neither Cooper nor Munro had received detailed figures from the NPCC.

18

of the 25 forces that responded show evident disproportionality

Through a string of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, Liberty Investigates has secured the ethnicity breakdown of fines issued by 25 police forces. Eight forces rejected the request, saying that the data would be published at a future point, and 10 forces are yet to reply. Of the 25 forces that did respond, 18 show evident ethnic disproportionality between fines issued to BAME people and white people, with six forces having to be discounted for being statistically insignificant, and one, Northumbria, showing proportionality. Among the forces that haven’t responded are North Yorkshire and Sussex police forces, the first and fourth biggest issuers of fines, respectively.

The most ethnically disproportionate use of fines was the Cumbria police force, where BAME people were 6.8 times more likely to be fined than white people. Other heavily disproportionate forces were Avon and Somerset, where BAME people were 4.4 times more likely to be fined than white people, Lincolnshire, where BAME people were also 4.4 times more likely than white people to be fined, and Suffolk, where BAME people were 4.1 times more likely to be fined than white people.

The most disproportionate force was Cumbria, where BAME people were 6.8 times more likely to be fined than white people.

Reached for comment by Liberty Investigates, Chief Inspector Jon Sherlock, Head of Criminal Justice at Cumbria police force said: “Our data shows that of 334 fixed penalty notices issued, 42% were issued to people who reside outside of Cumbria. Of the Cumbrian residents issued penalty notices, five were of a BAME background.” Sherlock added that the force had only used enforcement as a last resort.

Chief Inspector Paul Wigginton of Avon and Somerset police force said that the police recognised the regulations posed “the risk of a disproportionate impact for BAME members of the public” but that the force was committed to reviewing each fines and has done further analysis on the figures. Avon and Somerset police force has also invited an independent panel to review the fines, and it stressed that officers only used enforcement as a last resort.

A spokesperson for Suffolk police said that the force only issued fines as a last resort and that “all of the Fixed Penalty Notices issued have been reviewed to ensure that the enforcement action was proportionate and in line with national guidance”. Suffolk added that it is conducting further analysis of the fines but that “tickets issued to individuals from a black, Asian, and minority ethnic background are broadly in line with the diversity of those communities where the offences occurred, with the majority of Fixed Penalty Notices issued done so in the central Ipswich area”.

Lincolnshire police force was also contacted for comment by the Guardian, Liberty Investigates’ media partner, but at the time of publishing, had not responded.

There were only five forces where BAME people were less than two times more likely to be fined than white people—the urban forces of London’s Metropolitan police, Leicestershire, and the West Midlands, and the more rural forces of Norfolk and Devon and Cornwall.

“Figures from several areas indicate a tendency to disproportionately fine BAME individuals,” says Dr Simon White, a Royal Statistical Society statistical ambassador who assisted Liberty Investigates. “However, our understanding is limited by the large numbers of fines without any ethnicity information.”

As White observes, there are several forces where a significant proportion of the fines don’t have an ethnicity attached to them. This can be for several reasons, among them the person being fined refusing to state their ethnicity or the officer being called away on other business. For certain forces, however, the number is particularly high—70% of Kent’s fines didn’t have an ethnicity listed. Of the 25 forces that replied to Liberty Investigates’ FOI requests, seven lacked ethnicity data for more than 20% of their fines.

Figures from several areas indicate a tendency to disproportionately fine BAME individuals

Dr Simon White

Kent police has subsequently told Liberty Investigates that it provided inaccurate information and that it lacks ethnicity data for 29% of its fines. Despite the revision, figures from Kent and other forces prevent a clear understanding of exactly how many fines went to white people and to BAME people. The police monitoring organisations Netpol and StopWatch both told Liberty Investigates that it is usually people of colour who don’t provide their ethnicity to the police, suggesting that for some forces the disproportionality may be worse than first appears.

Tola Munro is calling on Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to look at the figures in more detail, as it does with other police powers such as stop and search. “We were disappointed not to have been sent the data,” Munro says. “We were hoping to use it to reach out to impacted communities and calm any tensions. From our perspective, this seems an opportunity missed by us all.”

Approached by Liberty Investigates for comment, the NPCC said: “So far we have only published national-level ethnicity data. We have commissioned detailed statistical analysis of the force-level ethnicity data. It is a complex dataset requiring further work to ensure accuracy and that conclusions can meaningfully and confidently be drawn from it. We will present the findings of the analysis once it is completed.”

Stop and search on the rise in London under lockdown

Liberty Investigates’ findings come at a time of greater scrutiny of police powers and police behaviour under lockdown. Since the restrictions came into effect in March, stop and searches have increased by 22% in London, with stops of black people increasing by 7.2 per 100,000 people to 9.3 per 100,000 people. Earlier this month, rapper Wretch 32 made headlines when he tweeted a video of the Metropolitan police tasering his father, a 62-year-old black man, in April.

22%

Increase

in stop and search under lockdown in London

The Metropolitan police told Liberty Investigates that it does not target black men, but instead polices “in areas where violence is high”. The force added that it is “highly accountable and highly scrutinised” and that it regularly reviews stop and search disparities “with representatives from [BAME] communities to ensure transparency and help ensure our tactics are appropriately used”. In response to the tasering video, the Metropolitan police said that the Independent Office for Police Conduct is assessing what happened and that the force is supporting it with this.

Despite the Metropolitan police’s response, videos showing police use of force against BAME people, such as Wretch 32’s father, have fueled protests across the UK against racism and police violence, which were sparked by the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of US police.

The UK protests, which have been marred by allegations of disproportionate police responses, formed part of an oral evidence session into policing more generally by the Home Affairs Select Committee on 17 June. The session, which marked 21 years since the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, also discussed police treatment of BAME people and relationships between the two groups.

This is something that Kusai Rahal, head of community support at the youth organisation the 4Front Project, is well equipped to speak on. On 12 April, Rahal received a call from a young person in north-west London, whose friend was being arrested and needed Rahal’s help.

No stranger to calls like these, Rahal, who won the Mayor of London’s Special Achievement Award in 2019, drove over ready to act as the arrestee’s “appropriate adult”. After he stepped away from his car, he was approached by three police officers who demanded to know who he was and why he was there. Rahal says that he explained that he was there as a keyworker to assist the young person and that he was wearing identification.

The police continued to question Rahal and demanded he provide his driving licence. Rahal asked them to clarify why he was required to do so but found himself surrounded by four officers, handcuffed, and taken into the back of their van. Inside the van, officers searched Rahal and took his licence, only to then issue him with a Fixed Penalty Notice for breaching lockdown regulations. This despite the fact that it was permissible – then and now – for keyworkers, like Rahal, to leave the house for work.

“Within my professional interactions with the police, I am treated differently because of the way I look,” Rahal, who is of North African origin, says. “Because of that and because we as an organisation predominantly work with young black people who are over-policed and criminalised, all of those in proximity to them are also subject to criminalisation – that includes me and others members of the team.”

In response to Rahal’s allegations, the Metropolitan police said that it had adopted “a proportionate approach to the enforcement of breaches of the Covid-19 legislation from the outset” and only used enforcement as a last resort. It added that it has a process to ensure fines are issued correctly but that anyone who has received one can challenge it at a magistrate’s court.

Rahal intends to contest the fine, and it is now the subject of a legal challenge by lawyers from Hodge Jones & Allen and Doughty Street Chambers. With many of the lockdown-related fines having only been issued in the past month or so, it is as yet unclear how many others will follow his lead.

However, as public awareness grows of possible injustices arising from the implementation of lockdown legislation – and with the public mood of anger over institutional racial bias – Rahal is unlikely to be the only citizen challenging a lockdown fine.

A version of this article was published by the Guardian.