Acknowledging the differential impacts of COVID-19 on communities, this project examines how the policing of rural communities has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We assessed the changing demands made of the police and other key organisations, agencies and groups supporting order maintenance in rural communities and how they adapted their roles. Taking a case study approach, the project examined the similarities and differences between two rural communities and their experiences of policing and being policed through the first year of COVID-19. We also considered the short- and medium-term impact of changes to order maintenance in rural communities and explored the longer-term implications concerning trust and confidence in these communities.
We employed a qualitative methodology, comprising an analysis of social media, twenty-two individual semi-structured interviews with key strategic, tactical, and operational staff from statutory agencies such as Police Scotland, Local Authorities (including Council Officers and local Councillors), a National Park, Forestry and Land Scotland, and local voluntary groups. We also held focus groups with three Community Councils. The pseudonymised case-study areas encapsulate different ‘rurals’: ‘Craignorth’, represents remote-rural communities in the north of Scotland and ‘Glen Roy’ captures an accessible rural community in the central belt of Scotland.
Findings developed from thematic analysis of the data showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and magnified existing pre-pandemic problems, particularly around (a lack of) access to service provision. The centralisation of resources to ‘hub’ towns and cities has accentuated feelings that some rural communities have reduced services and feel increasingly neglected and peripheral in decision making around resourcing. As a result, in the early phases of the pandemic, some rural community organisations filled the gaps left by services that were either withdrawn or moved online. Being sensitive to the particularities of local rural contexts is an important part of understanding the overall response. Communities, other formal agencies (e.g., police, local authorities), and the third sector utilised and developed extant structures, local knowledge, and networks of collective efficacy to organise support which addressed the needs of specific communities. Those communities with strong existing networks therefore tended to have clearer response channels than those with less formally structured organising networks.
Our findings also show that as the pandemic has progressed, the value placed on outdoor and rural areas has increased. People want to consume them more, which has affected the social and economic fabric of these areas and communities (e.g., housing has rapidly increased in value in many rural locations and local infrastructures are strained by increased tourist activity). Indeed, there are tensions between national and local decision making, and how to resource and support (re)imagined rural areas facing larger influxes of tourists and home buyers, especially with national decisions predicated on public health concerns and risks posed by COVID-19 having profound impacts on rural communities. While this might be accepted as we continue to progress through the pandemic-related crisis, consideration must be given about how to balance (competing) local and national policy and decision making, ensuring that rural communities are engaged and empowered in the process.
Police Scotland also appears to be successfully treading careful lines between the enforcement and discretionary policing of emergency legislation, where trust and confidence in the organisation is at stake. Communities were broadly supportive of the approaches taken in the pandemic reflecting the findings of the Independent Advisory Group’s report to the Scottish Police Authority Board (2020, p. 8), which showed that there had been “increased levels of public support and approval of policing in Scotland”. This may have been, as a Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice study argues (McVie, 2021, p. 47) attributable in part “to the high levels of discretion in police use of the new powers during the pandemic, with strong emphasis on informal means of encouraging people to comply with the Regulations and rare use of enforcement.” However, this same report also found that enforcement using Fixed Penalty Notices had been “highest amongst those living in Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods” reflecting “an additional degree of inequality in the way the pandemic was experienced amongst certain groups of people who live in communities that are already typified by poorer health, economic, educational and environmental outcomes” (2021, p.48). It is interesting, therefore, to reflect on the impact of policing in different rural communities.
Our data also revealed some evidence in Craignorth of a disconnect between trust and confidence in the police in general and trust and confidence in policing throughout the pandemic (i.e., participants appeared to ‘frame’ policing in the pandemic as something distinct to policing in ‘normal’ times). This highlights the continued importance of addressing historical police-community challenges and raises further future-oriented questions about the longer-term impacts of trust and confidence in the police in the post-pandemic context.
We hope this report will inform practitioners as they continue to respond to ever-changing demands concerning the broader health agenda and order-maintenance as the pandemic unfolds. We also hope that in the longer-term the project will inform the wider policy-agendas in several key areas such as service provision models in remote-rural Scottish communities, particularly with regards policing and mental health, as well as public access to the countryside.
Whilst the study was undertaken in Scotland, our conclusions are relevant to the pluralised policing of rural communities further afield during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wooff, A., Horgan, S., & Tatnell, A. (2021). Pluralised responses to policing the Pandemic: Analysing the emergence of informal order maintenance strategies, the changing ‘policing web’, and the impacts of COVID-19 in rural communities. A Report on Interim Findings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Napier University