Law Analysis

The rise of police power due to COVID-19

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Police officers have had to deal with increasingly difficult situations made worse by the pandemic (Screenshot via YouTube)

The COVID-19 pandemic has made work for the police force even more difficult and dangerous than before, writes Chris Hannay.

COVID-19 HAS PUT the world in a state of instability. Many organisations are operating on unfamiliar terrain and have no blueprint on how to handle the situation and its effects.

Police must respond to and aid in the national epidemic by introducing new policies and by-laws that are evolving constantly as policymakers collect input from immunologists and virologists about how to handle this global pandemic.

Whether the police exercise those powers and actions during the pandemic is of the highest significance because these extreme steps will have an effect on the reputation of the police. Whether or not police can effectively react to this crisis depends not only on legislators or the Government but also on community trust and the public sees the officers as a legitimate bearer of power.

In response to the COVID-19 emergency, the police have two roles to perform:

  1. Exercise expanded powers related to the reaction to public health.
  2. Reducing the movement of people into the criminal justice system and detention centres as part of the response to public health.

Increased police powers

New legislation and the proclamation of a state of emergency have placed serious restrictions on our civil rights and have given rise to extraordinary police powers.

In an effort to stop the COVID-19 growth, government entities have doubled the policing activities to implement the existing laws as well as the new medical guidelines.

Additional surveillance should also come with extra police powers. The sensible government will also ensure that such powers are reviewed regularly and supervised, including via an autonomous supervisory body.

Reduces people's flow

The police have an important role in the migration of offenders into the criminal justice system. This is particularly important in light of the fact that courts across the country are closing and new court cases have been postponed before further notice. Gaols are either at capacity or filling up.

Police cells and prisons are at the most dangerous areas, but in an emergency like COVID-19, they are highly risky as prisoners are still in the vicinity of others. This makes the police cells and prison system the perfect environment for the disease. For administrators, the consequences of an accident in police custody will be devastating.

Police can adjust their tactics on a temporary basis by staying away from arresting and charging people for low-level crimes. In fact, where the crime does not cause injury to a citizen, the police may issue an alert or caution and the police can delay the execution of arrest warrants for a period of at least six months.

Powers relating to infectious persons

The current police powers with regard to potentially dangerous individuals will remain in place throughout the dissemination control era.

Control to steer or remove an individual to a testing and evaluation site.

The security officer can guide or transfer people to a position suitable for screening and evaluation of their state of health. In order to exercise this power and authority, the public health officer must have sensible reasons to suspect that they are highly contagious.

Power to hold a person at a location for testing and evaluation.

The security officer shall have the power to maintain persons at the evaluation and monitoring site for 24 hours. The superintendent may extend this duration to a further 24 hours. In fact, the police can follow the guidance of a health care officer by holding a person at an evaluation and monitoring site for up to 48 hours.

Power to impose a quarantine.

Where an individual has a reported case of COVID-19 or the findings of these tests are incomplete, a health care officer can enforce a quarantine period of 14 days, which may be prolonged for a further 14 days. The constable has the authority to impose the rule by withdrawing the person and holding the individual in a quarantine position.

Today, even more than ever, city officials ought to ensure that equal procedures are followed by the police and the public. It is the responsibility of the entire police force to ensure the public's safety, with the help of interactive powers.

It is becoming of high significance for police officials to inform their officers the way they interact with the community in these troubled times will either build up or damage trust in police.

This is an incentive for the police to draw on current authority and restore the eroded credibility of the most vulnerable groups. Community leaders must explain the importance of equal justice to their own departments to remind stakeholders of how to do that by promoting consistency, providing people with a vote or involvement, fostering accountability and giving them a voice.

Chris Hannay is a leading criminal lawyer on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane and a Director at Hannay Lawyers.

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The rise of police power due to COVID-19

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