Coronavirus (COVID-19): international policing responses - part 2 - easing of lockdown

This review (part 2) considers international policing approaches and responses during the easing of lockdown (up to 15 June 2020) and future considerations.

Northern Ireland

Main points

  • Online child sexual abuse and domestic abuse have been recognised as key challenges for the police as people spend more time at home
  • A number of Black Lives Matter protesters might have been unjustly fined, which is 'deeply worrying' according to Amnesty International, and the police are now being investigated by the Northern Ireland Ombudsman
  • The Northern Ireland Policing Board has launched a review into the police's use of the new powers
  • A number of police officers were assaulted while trying to disperse a crowd on a beach, leading to the police increasing their patrols particularly around beauty spots, resorts and transport hubs
  • NI Health Minister recently admitted that the public's adherence to the lockdown was 'fraying'
  • Policing is particularly challenging as community relations with the PSNI are not always positive, and complicated by ongoing terrorist threats
  • Retail staff have had to deal with fights breaking out in queues outside shops, but the police have confirmed they have been supporting businesses through regular patrolling
  • The heads of the police forces in NI and the Republic of Ireland have agreed the terms of reference for a joint review into the policing approach to the pandemic
  • There are concerns about possible challenges arising when enforcing coronavirus legislation during the 'marching season'

Current situation

The Government in Northern Ireland (NI) has to review lockdown restrictions every 21 days, and must terminate the regulations as soon as the restrictions and requirements set out in them are 'no longer necessary'.[90] The latest review of restrictions was announced on 6 June: starting from 8 June, vulnerable people who were advised to shield can now go outdoors; large retailers can reopen, and outdoor weddings with 10 people present can take place. From the same date, anyone entering from outside the Common Travel Area has to self-isolate for 14 days.[91] Gatherings that involve more than two people remain prohibited unless they are considered necessary (for work, to attend a funeral, to facilitate a house move, to assist vulnerable people, provide emergency assistance or participate in legal proceedings or only involve members of the same household).[92]

Key challenges

Online child sexual abuse

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and a child protection charity have warned that the lockdown is likely to lead to an increased risk of child sexual abuse in Northern Ireland. In fact, the PSNI said that there has been a rise in online grooming and people accessing indecent images of children. The head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Mr McNally, said:

"We know that children are more likely to be online at the moment when they're not at school and we also know that people are not working or have been furloughed and generally have more time… We are definitely seeing an increase in people on the internet…Parents are extremely busy too and might not have the same time to look after their children's online activity".[93]

Domestic abuse

In mid-May, the PSNI revealed that they received at least 3,755 calls related to domestic abuse since the coronavirus lockdown began. Pre-lockdown, domestic incidents and crimes in Northern Ireland were already running at a 15-year high. In April, Justice Minister Naomi Long said that at least three people had been killed in domestic abuse incidents since the start of the lockdown. Amnesty International's Northern Ireland Programme Director said:

"Two months into lockdown, when we are still being urged to stay at home, incidents of domestic violence are at an all-time high, and the demand for domestic abuse services has gone through the roof. Yet, women's refuges and other charities which support victims here are still waiting for desperately needed additional funding. Significant extra money has been made available in every other part of the UK, but not in Northern Ireland".[94]

Black Lives Matter protests and differential treatment

There were five events in support of Black Lives Matter planned to take place, but three of these events were eventually cancelled. The PSNI conducted checks on travel routes and transport hubs across Northern Ireland, requiring people to return home rather than travel to the unlawful protest gatherings. Between 60 and 70 fines were issued to protesters[95] and a number of individuals, including organisers, will be reported to the Public Prosecution Service with a view to prosecution. The police will also conduct follow up enquiries to seek to identify others who may have committed offences.[96] However, one of the speakers at the Belfast event called for clarity on the criteria for fines being given, claiming that he was given a fine while walking alone towards the protest area.[97] Amnesty International UK's Northern Ireland Programme Director also described reports of fines being imposed on peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Belfast as 'deeply worrying'.[98] In particular, Amnesty International UK and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) have raised concerns that enforcement powers used by the PSNI as the legal basis for penalties only came into force at 11pm on Friday 5 June, just hours ahead of Black Lives Matter protests.[99]

The Northern Ireland Policer Ombudsman has now launched an investigation of the PSNI's enforcement of the coronavirus legislation during the protests, with claims that the police have been operating double standards when policing large gatherings. In fact, just a week after the Black Lives Matter protests where dozens of fines were handed out, the police chose not to intervene during a gathering to 'protect' Belfast's cenotaph,[100] leading to claims of differential treatment and inconsistency in applying the law.

Police Health and Safety

At the end of May, a crowd of more than 200 assembled on a Northern Ireland beach and had to be dispersed by officers, who were then attacked by sections of the crowd. One police officer was injured after she was kicked in the face. As a result of the incident, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "Over the weekend we will be increasing our patrols, particularly around beauty spots, resorts and transport hubs, focusing on the issues of crowds gathering in breach of Regulation 6 of the Health Protection Regulations, alcohol consumption in designated public places and road safety - particularly speeding and drink driving".[101]

Maintaining compliance

Following the reports of large groups, especially young people, gathering on beaches at the start of June, NI health Minister recently admitted that the public's adherence to the lockdown was 'fraying'. However, he also said he would not support giving additional powers to the police powers to enforce further coronavirus regulations. The Health Minister said:

"I don't think we're in a place yet where we need further legislation to actually bring in further penalties on those young people who are gathering (...) In regards to empowering police to enforce a two-metre distance, I think that would put an enormous pressure on an already under-pressure police force at this minute in time".[102]

Community relations

More in general, community relations with the police are an ongoing problem in Northern Ireland. With public trust and support for the police being generally low, the police operates in a very delicate context, further complicated by the ongoing terrorist threats.[103]

Examples of good and/or innovative practice

Child online sexual abuse

In response to a likely rise in child online sexual abuse during lockdown, the PSNI is promoting Stop It Now!, which runs a confidential helpline and a website for anyone concerned about child sexual abuse, including those who may be experiencing sexualised thoughts of children.[104]


After reports of retail staff having to deal with fights breaking out in queues outside shops, PSNI have confirmed they have been in regular contact with retail and business organisations and directly with businesses operating across the country over recent weeks, providing reassurance through regular patrolling, offering crime prevention advice and guidance regarding the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020.[105]

Human Rights and Equalities considerations

Review of PSNI powers

The Northern Ireland Policing Board has launched a review into the PSNI's use of the new powers given to the Force under coronavirus regulations. The PSNI received criticism over its use of the powers, with confusion over whether police officers can prevent members of the public from travelling long distances for the purpose of exercise. The review commissioned by the Policing Board will consider whether the use of the new powers is in accordance with the law and compliant with human rights, whether it is being used proportionately, whether PSNI training for officers is adequate, the impact on community confidence and whether there are any recommendations that should be made or lessons that can be learned, including whether the use of spit and bite guards by the PSNI should be restricted or should cease completely.[106]

Joint review of policing approaches

Furthermore, the heads of the police forces in NI and the Republic of Ireland agreed the terms of reference for a joint review into the policing approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.[107]

Long-term considerations

There are ongoing concerns about the so-called 'marching season' over the Summer months. With marches usually attracting tens of thousands of individuals, the PSNI's enforcement of coronavirus legislation will not be an easy and straightforward task.[108]



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