‘Baffled’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘quite intimidated’, ‘unsafe’– these are some of the words people used to describe their experience of COVID-19 laws and policing in Australia. While governments across Australia expanded police powers as a strategy to contain the virus, people’s experiences provoke questions about whether police are inescapably bad for public health. Our study of 90 accounts of how COVID-19 laws were policed in Australia foregrounds the experience of policed peoples to better understand how policing impacts on public health. This article finds that people’s experiences of criminalisation, exclusion and punishment, correlate with race, age, gender, disability and illness to undermine the social determinants of public health. Many police actions were unlawful and unnecessary, which sabotaged public health by criminalising health-positive behaviour and by increasing the debt burden of already policed populations. Police as first responders in the pandemic added further health risks to encounters already defined by the threat of force.
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