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Police Power-Trip of the Week: The Anarchy of Chalk Markings

A shopkeeper was threatened with a fine for trying to encourage social distancing with spray-on chalk lines outside her bakery.

by Simon Childs
30 March 2020, 1:17pm

Screenshots via

The crime: The deputy manager of a bakery sprayed the pavement with two-metre markings to help people social distance properly.
Fair cop: Give her some sort of commendation and distribute spray-chalk widely to encourage others to make similar markings.
The actual punishment: Threatened with a fine for criminal damage.

In these difficult and frightening times, it's important to stay on the look-out for silver linings – and the police have been doing just that, enjoying the unexpected bonus of new legislation to help them hassle people for new coronavirus-related offences.

Cann Hall Police displayed this not-at-all-sinister mood when they tweeted: "Some of us nerdy cops feel like kids at Christmas when there's new legislation to play with. Soooo, what powers of detention do I now have under The Public Health (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020…?" complete with a winking emoji (the tweet was deleted, an apology was given, an "internal investigation will be conducted and the officer who posted the tweet has been spoken with).

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Yep, this tweet really happened – and has since been deleted. Via Twitter.

While social distancing should of course be observed, nobody wants the police getting too comfortable with the power to fine someone for taking their second stroll of the day. However, many forces already seem to be pushing the envelope of Big Brother behaviour.

In my local park, police have been seen huddling around in a group – it's OK when they do it – while shouting at people for not standing apart. In Derbyshire, police were criticised for releasing creepy drone footage of couples walking in a field in the arse end of nowhere with nobody for miles around, apparently as an example of people failing to socially distance properly. The same force also poured black dye into a nice blue lake known as the Blue Lagoon, like they were performing some sort of druid curse-ritual, so that people stay away from it.

While some forces have been using the legitimate imperative of social distancing as an excuse for a power trip, this week's over-reach of the week went in the complete opposite direction – penalising someone for doing exactly the kind of thing that people ought to be doing.

Step forward an officer in Edgware, north London, who threatened the deputy manager of a bakery with a fine for trying to make sure her customers stand two metres away from each other.

The officer threatened Gemma Migdal with a £120 penalty for criminal damage for using a chalk spray to mark the pavement with two-metre markings so that people weren't at danger of infecting each other by standing too close in the queue.

Across the country, police forces have been publishing pictures of people standing closer than two metres apart – often people who look like family members or housemates, but they're not letting that stop them from engaging in a bit of public shaming. Migdal was doing something practical to help people observe social distancing, in a way that doesn't shame anyone and is unlikely to be described as "sinister" by civil liberties groups. In other words, she was showing that communities can often police their own behaviour more effectively than the cops, and got threatened with a fine for her trouble.

A video shows Migdal repeatedly pointing out that it's removable chalk and asking whether the police officer would prefer her customers stand closer to each other, reminding him that people are dying. The officer says, "It doesn’t matter… the law applies, coronavirus or not."

"The law is the law and it doesn't change because of what is happening. There would be anarchy in the world," says the officer, philosophically, recalling that bit in The Simpsons where Lionel Hutz imagines a world without lawyers.

I, for one, am shuddering to think of the anarchist hell-scape that is people taking practical steps to help each other through a public health situation. So much worse than our current utopia of tit-headed busybodies throwing the book at shop-keepers for trying to ensure their customers don't die.

In the end, no fine was issued and the Met have said they are speaking to officer concerned.

@SimonChilds13

Tagged:
police
Coronavirus
social distancing