COVID-19 penalty functions added to police mobiles

An image on an overhead projector of the police mobile app, with sections for eNotebook, Niche Tasking, Command and Control and Searches. The latter contains the fingerprint scanning app, which they call Person Search.

In yet another alarming development the police use of Motorola’s PRONTO software (Police Reporting and Notebook Organiser, PRONTO) which includes the biometric fingerprint scanning app has been updated with COVID-19 penalty functions. This is the result of the emergency police powers granted by the new Coronavirus Bill on March 26th, 2020. This new development will compound the unequal impact of the pandemic with the discrimination and lack of accountability embedded in policing technologies

At the beginning of lockdown, Stop the Scandal wrote an open letter to the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner concerned with the unequal and unjust impact of emergency police powers on Black, Brown and migrant communities. These fears have materialised, as figures show that Black and Brown people are twice more likely to be fined, are over-represented in the number of arrests made for alleged breaches of lockdown arrest and suffer from the excessive use of force. In West Yorkshire we know that 599 fines have been given:

  • 283 in Leeds
  • 133 in Bradford
  • 72 in Wakefield
  • 34 in Calderdale
  • 67 in Kirklees

Out of these fines, 38.2% of people fined were white, 22.1% Asian. They did not say what percentage is Black but we might deduce the rest of the fines were given to Black people. These statistics are resonated by a Big Brother Watch research that examined fines given in England under the Coronavirus Bill and found that Asian people received at least 13% of penalty fines even though they represent 7.8% of the national population and Black people were issued 5% of fines despite being 3.5% of England’s population. Furthermore, rural areas were more likely to issue fines than urban areas. In the same research they found the South Yorkshire Police had announced a taskforce to enforce lockdown regulations.      

But these concerns are not new, and not born out of thin air. Before the pandemic the Stop the Scandal campaign highlighted the potential damage wrought by the biometric fingerprint scanner and the extension of the police role into that of a border force first used by West Yorkshire Police and now nationally. The rollout of handheld fingerprint scanners feeds into the hostile environment where communities are afraid to engage with the police when they need help, protection from abuse, violence  or hate crime. It provides justification for racial profiling and invasive procedures. It shrouds that justification in sanitised ‘tech talk’. It results in inhumane mass deportation and detention. It subjects communities already traumatised by police brutality to further, and more frequent, encounters with institutionalised racism.

In updating the PRONTO suite with COVID-19 penalty functions, the police have steamrolled over the above legitimate criticisms and concerns. Instead of recognising the lasting damage of the devices, or responding to questions over lack of transparency and accountability, the police have sought to normalise the use of the mobile devices and avoid scrutiny. They have treated both dialogue with activists and the pandemic as an opportunity to improve the functioning of a policing technology that will serve to further entrench, normalise and digitalise the racial profiling and discrimination inherent in practices related to stop and search.

The impact of COVID-19 has already been devastating on Black, Brown and migrant communities. The COVID-19 report released by Public Health England last week demonstrates that BME (term used in the report) are more likely to die from the virus. Black people specifically are 4 times more likely to do so. This percentage is increased for people born outside of England. The report found that people from Central and West Africa are 4.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 while in this country. The numbers are equally alarming for people from “the Caribbean (3.5), South East Asia, which includes Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam (3.4), the Middle East (3.2) and South and Eastern Africa, which includes South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya (3.1)” in comparison to their European counterparts which was “the only group of countries not significantly higher than the average for England”(p.56). A joint report by migrant organisations and campaigns found the hostile environment is having a devastating impact on migrants’ access to healthcare during the COVID-19 crisis. The report concluded 57% of respondents were actively avoiding seeking medical advice because of fear of being charged, their data shared with the Home Office and other immigration enforcement issues. These fears will only increase under  the Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act where immigration officers are now given the power to detain anyone suspicious of having the virus for up to 3 hours and constables up to 24 hours, these can be renewed for 9 hours and a further 24 hours respectively. 

Hostile Environment and everyday border agents such as the police will only increase the harassment of Black, Brown and migrant communities, putting their lives at risk. We should refuse to let this burden be doubled by allowing COVID-19 to be used as an excuse to violate human rights and decency and to sweep scrutiny under the carpet. We demand:

  1. Police and government recognise that fining people under the Coronavirus Bill is an overzealous use of police powers which is disproportionately impacting Black, Brown and migrant communities. The digitalisation of COVID-19 fines as the latest addition to PRONTO will only increase this. 
  2. The COVID-19 function (which has not received community review) be removed immediately.
  3. Release data of anyone being detained under the Coronavirus Bill whose data has been shared with the Home Office.
  4. The roll out of handheld biometric fingerprint scanners be reversed before more damage is done.
  5. A firewall is installed between the police database and the Home Office. 

An open letter concerning Covid-19 and policing in Black and Brown communities

The following open letter was sent by this group to the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner on 20th April 2020.

The text #ENDSTOPANDSCAN over a large black and white graphic of a fingerprint

Dear Mark Burns-Williamson,

We are a group of citizens and activists concerned about the unequal and unjust impact of COVID-19 emergency police powers. We therefore write this open letter to ask what actions you will take to respond to the following concerns.

We have received a number of reports that indicate that current policing practices are not in line with the values and aims outlined by the Police & Crime Commissioner. Specifically we refer to the aim to ‘safeguard vulnerable people and support their communities’ emphasised in the call for applications for funding ‘to deal with the fallout of Coronavirus’.

We have received reports that police are failing in their duty to support victims of crime in the aftermath of racist attacks. While we acknowledge the need for social distancing guidelines to protect the vulnerable in our society, this responsibility must be shared equally. Police failure to respond to the needs of Black, Brown and migrant communities in the face of such crimes amounts to shifting the burden onto those most impacted by the pandemic.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has been recognised in the UK’s decision to launch a review into the matter. Among the most heavily impacted are: the migrant medical staff; those suffering under the hostile environment; those with no recourse to public funds; and those in our communities who are unemployed, in low-paid and insecure work, or living in shared housing, where self-isolation simply is not an option.

While requests for help are being side-lined, the over-policing of these same communities continues during patrols to enforce lockdown. We have heard from several members of the communities we work with that they are being disproportionately targeted and harassed by police officers. Discrimination and harassment are unacceptable under any circumstance and this period of lockdown should not alter that fundamental principle.

It is vital that the police response to the pandemic be to fulfil their duty to provide help for victims of crime, and build trust with those they should be working for. We are deeply concerned that this duty is being undermined, and rights violated, in the way emergency police powers are currently being applied. 

We therefore ask what measures you will be taking to:

A) End these practices of discrimination and harassment in West Yorkshire?

B) Ensure victims still receive the support they need in the aftermath of a crime during this lockdown period?

Before COVID-19, as you will be aware, there were numerous reports nationally about the disproportionate use of Stop and Search on black and brown people in the UK. We note that MP David Lammy shares this concern, stating “We cannot continue to have different policing for different communities – it is inherently unfair – and so these figures suggesting that we are actually going backwards are deeply alarming.” This structural racism has been exacerbated under lockdown. We would like to know how West Yorkshire Police, specifically, are mitigating against it.

Lastly, the emergency police powers enable officers to detain anyone under the justification of their suspected potential infection risk. We are concerned individuals detained on these grounds will be referred to the Home Office and imprisoned in immigration detention. Returning the police to a border force role undermines vital access to police services by communities who cannot trust a police force operating as such. It is a serious threat to people’s lives and human rights, particularly when viewed in the context of the growing use of biometrics with racist Stop and Search practices. We understand that the powers are likely to be reviewed every 6 months, but are demanding that the power to detain anyone be removed immediately, since detention venues cannot possibly ensure the individual’s safety. 

Regards,

The Stop the Scandal Team

Is the police a border force?

The discovery of 39 dead Vietnamese people in the back of a lorry Essex lorry deaths sent shock waves across the country hitting headlines for weeks. It highlighted the extreme lengths that people have been taking, looking for safety and sanctuary in the UK. Scenarios like these have been seen and repeated innumerable times across Europe. These events implore us to  reflect and consider what these events tell us about us, about oppression, about colonial legacies that continue to refuse to own its culpability.

Such deaths draw attention to the conditions that people are running from in their home countries – what is it that would invoke such desperation? What would make a person risk their lives and the lives of their children? To look upon the vast expanse of a blue sea or blink into the dark of a hot, cramped back of a truck and see their future there. It’s been documented but worth reiterating, loudly, that it’s events like climate disasters, global economic inequalities, wars funded by companies with government subsidies and tax breaks in the countries that people flee to. Most of the counties that people are moving from don’t make the weapons that are killing them.

A picture of two people walking towards the UK border control at Heathrow airport. The border guards await them in perspex booths. Lines are made from barriers, but there's no crowd to contain.

Sad events like this also do something else. It highlights the poor attempts by some media outlets to view this tragedy as faceless, victimless and not deserving of empathy. The immigrant narrative, at first devoid of names, described them as just dead bodies. The most important bit about that sentence is that they were dead. Not humans. Such coverage perpetuates the dehumanisation of already dehumanised Black and Brown lives. It actively discourages the traces of compassion and empathy that such situations should always stir.

Much of this coverage also conveniently put the blame solely on the driver and the trafficking world, much like the blaming of the individual man whose flat started the fire in Grenfell and not state-driven racist migration policies. However to really address the issue, we ought to look at the compounding factors that lead to these disasters. Like racism, classism and capitalism.

The portrayal and perception of Black and Brown communities as just numbers mean channels of travel from economically poorer countries, ex-colonies and the Global South to the Global North have been effectively shut down. Whilst the majority of European and North American citizens can travel freely and at their own convenience to the rest of the world. Corporations continue to exploit former colonies and territories of occupation, having emptied those countries, committed land grabs, imprisoned and tortured those that have dared to speak out. But the opportunity of travel is not reciprocated. Big business is involved in creating policies that make travel for some harder. The recent announcement of an introduction of tier system migration affirms the message that the UK wants rich and educated migrants.

This unfortunately means the problem will persist, blaming the traffickers is just sticking a plaster on a century’s old gaping wound, as opposed to acknowledging the root cause of the problem. Efforts could be put into exploring and addressing the reasons why people continue to risk their lives to enter territories that do not really value their lives.

Despite having the equality act, human rights legislation and all sorts of policies, it is clear that some communities are left behind, suffering in fear and silence. The Stop the Scan campaign is raising awareness and resisting this form of the Hostile environment whereby police forces around the country are using mobile biometrics fingerprint scans that have access to the home office migration and criminal records. This means communities are afraid to engage with the police even when they need help, protection from  abuse, violence  or hate crime. This situation was highlighted not long after the Grenfell tower Fire when communities in fear of authorities were unwilling to come forward. The fear of the authorities meant we couldn’t quickly count our dead, we couldn’t grieve. Perhaps if there was less fear we would quickly know the 39 who were as young as 15 and as old as 44 who were sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.

A UK Metropolitan police van in motion, lights flashing.

A solution would be to detach migration border force roles/work from the police. Numerous enquiries have found them guilty of racism, how can this not impact on how they deal with Black and Brown migrant people. Other sectors have been involved in hostile environment delivery, health care, education, housing, driver licencing and the banks. Imagine being afraid to report a crime committed against you, to go to the GP? Crossing a border should not make you illegal.

A debt is owed to those countries that were underdeveloped to help build and make the West  rich. Global inequalities that stems from colonialism must be addressed alongside ways of readjusting that balance. It would involve a form of reparatory justice. We haven’t even begun to collectively think about that. It would mean treating ‘others’ as we would ourselves. It would mean seeing borders as defunct and not just another way of performing nationhood. It would mean no one could make money out of desperation. We can only hope.

Article by Penny Wangari-Jones @racejustice @yorkshireresists

What’s happening?

STOP the SCANdal

Police have recently undertaken a national rollout of mobile fingerprint scanners linked to Home Office immigration databases, after a pilot in West Yorkshire.

These scanners now allow officers to take someone’s fingerprints any time they ‘suspect’ an offence has been committed and they doubt the person’s identity.

Mirroring racist Stop and Search, this new practice will disproportionately target Black and Brown people, trans people and migrants. The initiative is also funded by the Home Office, in a clear attempt to re-purpose the police into border enforcement squads.

Any form of history with the immigration database – which has been shown to contain gross inaccuracies – will bring up a positive match. As the Windrush scandal has shown, this could lead to hundreds of innocent people being detained or deported.

A number of machines are already being used in West Yorkshire and they could be on their way to yours soon.

JOIN US TO DEMAND THAT THE POLICE:

  • End the racist Stop and Scan initiative immediately
  • Sever all connections between police activity and Home Office databases
  • Only use fingerprint scanning in police stations following an arrest
  • Publicly release the data taken in the West Yorkshire pilot.

To send in your questions and concerns, or to find out how you can resist mobile fingerprinting in your area, contact us at stopthescan@racialjusticenetwork.co.uk.

The Racial Justice Network

#Yorkshire Resists

#STOPtheSCANdal – #CareDontShare