Like all significant social events, COVID-19 has its own lexicon of words and phrases that we find ourselves hearing and using – ‘test, track and trace’, ‘a V-shaped recovery’, ‘asymptomatic’, ‘lockdown’, ‘second spike’, and so on. One word doing the rounds currently is ‘marshal’.
To ensure that the public are following social distancing rules, Boris Johnson announced in September the introduction of ‘marshals’ to towns and cities across the country. These marshals are either volunteers or council workers who are asked to patrol busy areas and give advice on social distancing guidelines, hand out masks and sanitiser and provide a visible nudge to the public to comply. They do not have powers to arrest or fine – they would need to call the police were enforcement required – and it is not clear that local councils have received any extra funding for these posts since their unexpected announcement.
COVID marshals have already been trialled in Leeds and Cornwall and they bear some similarity with established night-time economy roles, such as Street Angels or street pastors. The latter are usually charity-based, often faith-based, initiatives where workers walk the streets, seeking to defuse street tensions and help those who have drunk too much, are upset, separated from friends or need to get home safely. Notwithstanding the potentially positive impact of these street workers, some criminologists argue that these initiatives are consistent with a New Right agenda, where groups are co-opted by the state into policing activity, but without cost to the public purse; Johns, Squires and Barton, 2009; Johns et al., 2019; see also van Steden, 2017).
This trend is referred to as the ‘pluralisation of policing’ (Crawford, in Newburn, 2003; Johnston and Shearing, 2003), where the “police increasingly need to work with other government agencies, the third sector, community organisations and the private sector” (Rogers, 2016). Policing ‘beyond the police’ appears consistent with David Garland’s (2002) thesis that late modern society is characterised by a ‘culture of control’, where networked actors and agencies across society are engaged in managing and preventing criminal risk.
On 23 September, the supermarket ASDA announced it was creating a 1,000 new COVID marshal roles to support safety in store. Universities are also employing marshals to patrol student accommodation, social areas and on-campus. Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities are paying security contractor Mitie to provide marshals, who “will report antisocial behaviour and breaches of social distancing to the relevant authorities“. Marshals, university security services and police have been involved in monitoring student halls and accommodation as hundreds of students up and down the country are now subject to quarantine due to COVID outbreaks.
As I wrote back in April 2020 for this blog, the pandemic has enabled new surveillance measures which, while legitimate now, may quite easily become re-purposed and normalised. Supplementing this technological, scientific and increasingly privatised armoury are the physical presence of public police and army (if needed), private security guards and now also marshals. In principle, these resources could be harnessed productively to support us through COVID. But the nagging question remains – while they are all busy watching over us: who is watching over them?
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.