London CNN  — 

Drones filming couples as they walk their dogs through the countryside. Drivers sent to court after being spotted on the road. A lawmaker admonished in public for dropping in on his father’s 78th birthday.

The coronavirus crisis has upended norms in almost every Western society, giving rise to ways of life that would have seemed unimaginably Orwellian just a month ago.

But in the United Kingdom, there is a unique growing concern around draconian tactics and overreach by police forces since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures on March 23.

Police in the town of Warrington in northern England were criticized last weekend for issuing a citation to six people for a variety of apparently minor acts. One recipient was “out for a drive due to boredom,” the force said on Twitter Sunday, while a group of people from the same household were stopped by officers for “going to the shops for non-essential items.”

Several other forces have publicized details of their own similarly eager responses; which include the conventional, like spot road checks on drivers, and the bizarre, like staining areas of natural beauty with black dye to deter visitors.

Meanwhile, a trade body for convenience store workers said “heavy-handed” officers were telling shopkeepers they couldn’t stock non-essential items like Easter eggs, lashing out at “overzealous enforcement and a misreading of the rules.”

The approach has led figures from across the political spectrum to raise concerns, with some warning that British policing risks slipping into territory usually occupied by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

“This is what a police state is like,” Jonathan Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court justice, told BBC Radio on Monday. “It is a state in which a government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority, and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

Legislation speedily introduced last week allows officers to fine people gathering in groups of more than two or leaving their homes without a good reason, and the measures are less severe than in several other countries.

But those increased powers have nonetheless created an awkward dynamic in a country where police do not carry arms, and where the friendly caricature of a “bobby on the beat” still resonates.

The confusion is only heightened by the fact that Britain’s lockdown is looser than those in countries such as Italy or Spain. People are permitted to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, exercise, providing medical services, or going to work if it is absolutely vital.

Futher uncertainty has arisen because the rules are being interpreted differently – including by the UK government. When he announced the restrictions, Johnson said that people would be permitted to leave their homes to take one form of exercise a day. That guidance is repeated on the government’s website.

But the regulations themselves do not specify a number or type of exercise, saying only that people are permitted to leave “to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household.”

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, told BBC Radio on Tuesday that people should not drive to a rural location to to take their dog for a walk – but that’s not banned in the regulations, either.

It’s led to an unclear situation in the United Kingdom where individual police forces are filling in the blanks – and, in many cases, attracting criticism.

Police urged to maintain public trust

Widespread debate about police coronavirus tactics first emerged last week, when Derbyshire’s force posted a video of drone footage showing unwitting people walking through the area’s Peak District National Park.

The clip highlighted a number of vehicles at a roadside stop, before featuring a couple walking their dog, and another man going for a walk by himself.

It did not appear obvious that either party was flouting the government’s guidelines on outdoor exercise. But the guidelines also warn against traveling, leading Derbyshire Police’s video to label the trips “not essential,” sparking a backlash online.

“We understand that people will have differing views about this post, however, we will not be apologetic for using any legal and appropriate methods to keep people safe,” the force responded on Twitter.

Since then, numerous examples of strict crackdowns have been highlighted – usually by police forces themselves, which have publicized their methods on social media, including spot checks on road users.

In North Yorkshire, police published a photo showing a group of officers stopping a car. “This driver was making an essential journey, unfortunately others are not,” they wrote.

And in Buxton, police took the unusual approach of dying a popular blue limestone quarry black to deter visitors.

Sensing the mounting concern over officers’ approach, one of the UK’s most senior police officers urged colleagues on Monday to maintain “the trust and confidence of the public.”

“How we police this pandemic will be remembered for many years to come,” assistant commissioner Neil Basu wrote in an opinion piece in The Telegraph newspaper.

Criticism of police methods has been far from universal, and those ignoring social distancing rules by gathering in parks or holding parties have equally been the targets of public anger.

Shapps, the Transport Secretary, told Sky News on Tuesday that “the police are doing a difficult job and they are doing it well,” though he added: “I am sure there are individual examples where perhaps you look at it and think that is perhaps a bit further than they should have gone.”

And in defense of her London officers, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said on radio station LBC on Monday that her workforce was “adopting a very collaborative approach with the public.”

“I would also ask all citizens, where they feel it safe and appropriate, to encourage members of their family and people they know to learn about the restrictions and to comply with them,” Dick added, a recommendation that does little to dispel confusion about the restrictions themselves.

Calls for clarity

Media reports on Tuesday suggested that the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) was issuing new guidelines to forces in the wake of mounting complaints, although a spokesperson for the NPCC disputed those suggestions in an email to CNN.

“We are not rewriting our guidance. It remains the same as it was. Engage, explain, encourage and finally enforce,” the spokesperson said. “This is a fast changing situation and we, along with the public, are adapting as we go forward.”

Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists on Monday to check that their travel is essential.

Nonetheless, some legal experts have pointed to widespread confusion and an overly harsh interpretation of the government’s lockdown measures as the cause of alleged overreach.

“Some police think that their job is to enforce the government’s guidance, when in fact their job is to enforce the law,” Raphael Hogarth, an associate at the Institute for Government think tank, said on Twitter. “The law is that you may not leave home without a reasonable excuse. The legislation gives non-exhaustive examples of such excuses.”

“Some police forces seem to be using their powers without any regard to the purpose for which these powers were conferred,” he added. “The purpose of the legislation is to stop the virus spreading, by stopping unnecessary inter-household contact.”

Indeed, confusion about what is and is not enforceable in the government’s hastily-prepared lockdown legislation has been apparent even among lawmakers.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock fell foul of his local police force after posting a picture showing him celebrating the birthday of his father – the now-retired former leader of the opposition Labour Party, Neil Kinnock.

“We know celebrating your Dad’s birthday is a lovely thing to do, however this is not essential travel,” South Wales police told him over Twitter. Although Kinnock was sitting a sizable distance from his parents, the government’s restrictions specify that people should not visit relatives unless it is essential.

“We need to be really careful here,” Liberal Democrat lawmaker Layla Moran said on Twitter, responding to complaints that convenience stores were being told they could not stock “non-essential” Easter eggs.

“Making a trip only for an Easter egg is clearly against the rules. But picking one up with the bigger shop for the kids? The Government needs to give sharper guidance for (local authorities) and Police on the application of the new laws,” she added.