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:
- 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.
- The COVID-19 function (which has not received community review) be removed immediately.
- Release data of anyone being detained under the Coronavirus Bill whose data has been shared with the Home Office.
- The roll out of handheld biometric fingerprint scanners be reversed before more damage is done.
- A firewall is installed between the police database and the Home Office.