Chief Constable praises Surrey residents’ lockdown response

Chief Constable Gavin Stephens (credit: office of Police & Crime Commissioner for Surrey)
By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 10 November

Surrey Police’s Chief Constable has expressed his gratitude for the “bucketloads of empathy” he has seen in the community fight against coronavirus.

Since the first lockdown, which began on March 23, Surrey Police has handed out 520 fixed penalty notices for breaking coronavirus regulations.

Only three of these were issued for breaching self-isolation; these include a parent whose child did not quarantine and someone arriving in the country from abroad.

Surrey Police has not had to use the largest fine at their disposal – £10,000 – reserved for shutting down huge parties.

“Apart from the odd sort of student party we haven’t seen unlicensed music events in Surrey, we haven’t seen mass gatherings, and that really helps,” said Chief Constable Gavin Stephens.

Six of the £200 tickets issued were given over the weekend, just after the second lockdown started.

One was handed to someone travelling from outside the county and the others, mostly landed by men all aged between 22 to 35, had “no reasonable excuse for being out and about”.

Three of the men were stopped because they were suspected of poaching, at the Clacket Lane services on Friday evening.

The rule of six has, until December 2, been replaced by the rule of two, and Chief Constable Stephens said: “You can expect officers on patrol to engage with you to find out why you’re out and about.”

But despite hundreds of calls made to Surrey Police about Covid breaches, he said: “Surrey residents, including students, are 99% of the time being responsible.”

“We’ve seen really, really high levels of compliance. I’m ever so grateful and I’m confident that will continue to be the case,” he said.

“Only in rare exceptions are we having to take enforcement action where people have got a blatant disregard for the safety of others.”

Police have discretion and only issued the £200 tickets where people refused to follow officers’ instructions to return home.

His personal view was that you “cannot enforce your way out of a health situation” but need to “engender that sense of collective responsibility”.

“If we set up factions and divisions, conflict and tensions, that will not help us in the short or long term,” Stephens added.

He was not seeing the public fatigue reported nationally and suggested there was a lot of empathy among people who had personally experienced the effects of the virus.

He said: “Many people have experienced bereavement and know what that feels like now. Many people have seen how difficult it is to do homeschooling and feel an enormous debt of gratitude to teachers.

“Many people have seen the sacrifices that our retail staff have made in supermarkets to keep us all stocked and supplied when frankly, in the first wave, lots of us behaved really badly, panic buying.

“So although on the face of it you might see different behaviours, I don’t think that empathy and understanding and compassion has gone from our communities, I think it’s there in bucketloads.”

He said compliance reduced officers’ exposure to the virus, which meant staffing levels remained “very good”, although no figures were given.

Stephens added: “It means we can concentrate on all the other crime and disorder and mental health issues we’re having to cover.”

Overall demand for policing has gone down during the pandemic, including a 37.5% reduction in house burglaries since the start of April compared to the same period last year.

However, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of mental health incidents since April, with a 73% increase in the use of section 136 to detain someone under the Mental Health Act.

Other increases include domestic abuse, and with people spending more time on their computers, fraud and cyber-crime.

Since entering lockdown one, referrals to the Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT) have increased by 19%, compared to the same period last year.

At the same time, conversely, there were 103 fewer reports of child abuse, a decline of 12%.

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Ali Barlow said: “During the first lockdown, children were subject to increased tensions within the family and increased exposure to domestic abuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs. The dynamics are different in the second lockdown because children are still going to school.

“We also believe that child abuse did increase during the first lockdown but that it wasn’t reported and so wasn’t reflected in the crime figures.

“We would urge anyone who suspects a child as being at risk of abuse or online or external exploitation to report it to us straight away. We do not want children to suffer in silence.”

Surrey Police has been given about £388,000 from the government to spend on additional resources during the second lockdown. Chief Constable Stephens welcomed this but said “that sort of money goes quite quickly”.

There is an online form monitored 24/7 where breaches can be reported.