So it happened this week after the police were given sweeping wartime-like powers to combat the ongoing crisis caused by the coronavirus.
Let’s say from the outset that some temporary restrictions on our liberties are necessary, and people should adhere to the advice to try to restrict the spread of the disease by social distancing and staying at home except for a number of exceptions, such as taking daily exercise and essential shopping.
And let us also accept that, on the whole, the police do a marvellous job, and many officers are putting their own health at risk in order to keep us safe.
But there is always an exception, isn’t there? And this week there has been numerous examples of overzealous coppers taking delight in bossing people about for no obvious reason other than it makes them feel properly important.
The Derbyshire constabulary, for example, sent a team of officers to add black dye to a reservoir known as the Blue Lagoon of Buxton in order “to make the water look less appealing” and to deter visitors.
The same force also sent up a drone to chase ramblers and dog walkers taking a stroll in the Peak District – tracing some number plates back to Sheffield, a 30-minute drive away – and then shaming them on Twitter.
We should all remember these incidents when the police claim – as they frequently do – that they “don’t have the resources” to investigate burglaries, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour.
It is amazing, isn’t it? Normally you don’t see a police officer from one year to the next, but now they are everywhere, even on the remote tops of the moors.
The fact is they have plenty of resources. The real issue is whether they should prioritise the crimes the taxpaying public wants dealing with, or waste their time on fashionable causes that make officers feel good about themselves and they can boast about on social media.
And there is something profoundly sinister – and decidedly un-British – about agents of the state tracing the addresses of law-abiding members of the public by filming their licence plates from a drone. It sounds more like something from Orwell’s 1984, or the East German Stasi, than what you would expect from a public service in a free and democratic society.
Is it any wonder that the former Supreme Court judge, Lord Sumption, likened these incidents to the actions of a “police state”, adding that they were “disgraceful” and “shamed our policing traditions”?
Derbyshire Police were by no means alone in making total fools of themselves. In Warrington, police boasted – on social media, naturally – that they had issued six summonses in one night for offences against the coronavirus legislation, including “numerous people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items”.
Part of me wants these cases to come to court, just so the police can be put back in their box. There is no law against two people from the same household going shopping and there is no legal definition of what constitutes “non-essential items”. Clearly the police need a stern reminder that they can’t make up the law.
This same non-existent law against buying “non-essential items” was also used by “heavy-handed” police and local council officials, according to the Association of Convenience Stores, to try to ban corner shops from selling such things as chocolate Easter eggs and hot cross buns – although the same restrictions were not applied to Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
In the UK we value those ancient liberties that our ancestors fought and in some cases died for. We enjoy wandering across the moors, having a lunchtime pint and popping into the shops for pesky “non-essential” items without being snooped on and harassed by the state.
Most of us have been persuaded to accept a temporary restriction of freedom in order to beat the virus. But the police should remember they are, in the words of Lord Sumption, “citizens in uniform” and without the support of the public the British model of policing by consent will break down.
In other words what we want from the boys and girls in blue is a bit of common sense. Is it too much to ask for?
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