‘This is What a Police State is Like’: Ex-Supreme Court Justice Sounds Alarm on Lock down Overreach

Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is "essential", in line with the British Government's Covid-19 advice to "Stay at Home", in York, northern England on March 30, 2020, as life in Britain continues during the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel …
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A recently retired supreme court judge has sounded the clearest warning yet over the major threat to the freedom of the British people by overenthusiastic police forces responding to the unprecedented demands made by the government over coronavirus.

Speaking to the BBC, Lord Sumption — who stood down from the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2018 as one of the most senior judges in the country — called the actions by one Police force in particular “frankly disgraceful”. While noting the majority of police forces had acted with restraint so far, the prominent lawyer warned the public against giving up hard-won freedoms while in a panic and craving security over coronavirus.

Framing the peer’s comments while introducing him on the BBC radio show World at One by implying they sounded like the ravings of “wild-eyed campaigners”, the broadcaster invited Lord Sumption to elaborate on his earlier remarks where he previously highlighted the importance of the rule of law even during a crisis, writing in The Times: “Liberty and the rule of law are surely worth something even in the face of a pandemic.”

Calling on the public to engage with scientific evidence critically and to come to their own conclusions over what constitutes a reasonable “common sense” response to the pandemic rather than “resign our liberty into the hands of scientists”, Lord Sumption explained to the BBC Monday that genuine fears whipped up to frenzy was a historical catalyst for peoples giving up liberty in haste, before repenting at leisure.

Lord Sumption said: “The real problem is when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away, it’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection from some external threat.

“And the threat is usually a real threat, but usually exaggerated and that is what I fear we are seeing now… We have to recognise that this is how societies become despotisms.”

At the core of the crisis of policing over the response to coronavirus is the enormous overreach of some forces in enforcing the lockdown, and particularly where individual forces and officers had taken it on themselves to enforce the wishes of government ministers, rather than the law itself, Lord Sumption said. The most troubling developments in this area have been Derbyshire police, whose recent actions included surveilling members of the public exercising in isolation in the remote countryside, recording them with flying drones, and then releasing that footage online in an apparently attempt to shame people into not leaving their home.

The force elicited further shock when it poured black dye into the striking azure waters of a former industrial pit, where the natural properties of the local minerals caused the water to take on its distinct hue. This act of vandalism the force justified by explaining that it wished to prevent people going outside and the black colour of the water made the area look less appealing, and in any case dies had been added in previous years to the same effect.

Other regional police officers have apparently also jumped on the opportunity to enforce a nationwide lockdown with enthusiasm. Humberside police even went as far as to create an “online portal” which would allow citizens to inform on their neighbours if they were judged not to be following the government’s advice sufficiently enthusiastically. Others have intimidated shop owners for stocking chocolate as a non-essential food — a claim for which there is absolutely no legal basis — while one force reprimanded a Labour Member of Parliament for sitting outside his father’s home to wish him a happy birthday.

Of these petty abuses of power which suddenly seem to have become a feature of life since the government placed the nation on lockdown and asked the police to enforce the quarantine, Lord Sumption said: “this is what a police state is like”. He told the BBC:

The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating at the government’s command. And yet in some parts of the country, the police have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country, which are not contrary to the regulations, [but] simply because ministers have said they would prefer us not to.

The police have no power to enforce minister’s preferences, but only legal regulations, which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance. I have to say the behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people into using their undoubted right to travel to take exercise in the country, and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so that people don’t want to go there is frankly disgraceful.

This is what a police state is like — it is a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority, and the police enforce minister’s wishes.

I have to say most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensibly and moderate fashion. Derbyshire police have shamed our policing traditions. There is a natural tendency, of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens into uniforms into glorified school prefects. I think it’s very sad that the Derbyshire police have failed to resist that.

Despite his remarks, the BBC’s final question to the veteran jurist was one alluding to a now-common argument against any opposition to the lockdown regime, that only immunologists or epidemiologists — those who study virus outbreaks — should have opinions on how it should be enforced. Asked him why he should feel entitled to speak about the police cracking down on the public when he is only a former supreme court judge, Lord Sumption replied: “It is the duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said, and to analyse it for themselves and draw common-sense conclusions.

“We are all perfectly capable of doing that, and there is no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it is rather important in a matter of national panic that we should maintain them.”

Lord Sumption is not the only public figure now emerging to criticise the government’s plans, after weeks where opposition to turning off the United Kingdom’s economy and confining tens of millions of people to their home appeared non-existent in either parliament or the television and radio studios.

Among them is anti-government surveillance campaign group Big Brother Watch, whose director Silkie Carlo called the new law “an eye-watering set of authoritarian powers” last week, and said of the government’s move to greater control: “we have just experienced a huge loss of liberty in this country.

“And of course, there are justified reasons for it but the way in which this has happened through the passing of the coronavirus act — which is 342 pages rushed through parliament in three days — I watched parliamentarians do this through gritted teeth… one of the most sombre sights I’ve ever seen in parliament. Because these are the most draconian powers we’ve ever seen in this country.

“And if you think that police flying drones over parks is excessive, to film and publicly shame people taking their dogs for a walk, that is nothing compared to the powers in that act. Powers to arbitrarily detain people, forcibly test people, potentially thwart protests. Of course, we’ve got to hope these never come to fruition, but that does mean we’re now operating on trust.”

The outcry against the police responding with enthusiasm to their new roles has earned some rebuke from their superiors. British newspaper The Guardian reported Tuesday that the National Police Chiefs Council were “rushing through guidance” to remind individual officers that they were to enforce the law only, and “despite politicians’ warnings they cannot bar people from going for a run or a drive.”

The report stated that part of the concern and drive for change was based on a desire for the police to not turn communities against them. A senior officer quoted by the newspaper noted: “we all agreed that we wanted to see this done with the consent of the public. We’re not going to enforce our way out of this problem.”

 

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