Police adapt to keep officers healthy while keeping public safe during coronavirus crisis, criminal justice professor says

In times of crisis, we look to the police to enforce the law, maintain order, provide public services and prevent crime. Post-9/11, U.S. police departments have had to up their game to combat the threat of terrorism, which has led many departments to draft emergency preparedness plans that can adapt to multiple crises. But the speed and scale at which COVID-19 has swept across the world has meant that even these institutions of public safety have had to respond on the fly with the resources at hand.

Here are a few of the changes — and challenges — our nation’s police are facing.

Changes in standard operating procedures

One of the most important concerns for law enforcement has been to reduce the risk of virus transmission and keep officers healthy. Police departments nationwide have needed to change to their day-to-day operations to align with recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The bulk of these changes are aimed at minimizing the risk of officer-to-officer transmission of the virus, which could cripple an entire department.

One of the most important concerns for law enforcement has been to reduce the risk of virus transmission and keep officers healthy.

Roll calls in some departments have been moved outside into parking lots to accommodate a 6-foot distance between officers while others are conducted via radio check-in. In some locations, low-priority police services, such as employment-related fingerprinting, station tours, ride-alongs, vehicle identification number verification and public engagement programs (such as citizens’ police academies and coffee with a cop) have been suspended until further notice. To limit in-person contacts, many departments have been encouraging residents to make complaints by phone or online to cut down on the number of individuals coming into police stations.

Sanitization stations have been created in some departments to wipe down the inside of police cruisers after a shift and to clean officers’ utility belts. Officers are encouraged to refrain from taking their uniforms into their homes to minimize the risk of infecting their families.

Dr. Matthew Fischer

Personal protective equipment

Along with their guidance on social distancing, the CDC has recommended that law enforcement be equipped with a minimum of personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes wearing face masks or N95 respirators, disposable gowns and latex gloves. Departments in less affected areas, such as Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, report that they have sufficient PPE for all their officers. However, other departments continue to struggle to outfit their officers with a minimum of protective equipment.

PPE shortages can still be found in heavily affected areas such as New York, Louisiana, Washington and California. Fortunately for those departments in heavily affected urban areas, donations of PPE have come in from a variety of sources to overcome shortages for law enforcement and first responders. Schools have been donating masks and other PPE from nursing stations, labs and other facilities; dental offices, paint stores, construction companies, auto repair companies, resorts and casinos and home improvement stores have all donated masks, gloves and other vital equipment.

Drawdown in enforcement of minor offenses

If you’ve been out driving recently, you might have noticed a decrease in the number of officers enforcing traffic. That’s because officers have been redeployed to hospitals, open government buildings and stores to provide additional security if a fight breaks out over toilet paper or household cleaner. As the result of there being fewer cars on the roads, incidents of speeding and fatal crashes have increased nationwide. In New York City, for example, automated cameras issued 24,765 speeding tickets for the entire city by March 27, almost double the number of tickets issued daily in February (12,672). And, according to the California Department of Transportation, which surveyed a subset of street locations, speeds on some Los Angeles streets have increased by as much as 30%.

Additionally, police are trying to avoid unnecessary in-person contacts, which has resulted in an increase in issuing warnings, citations, tickets or summons for nonviolent offenses rather than taking someone into custody. In other instances, 911 operators and dispatchers are shifting all nonemergency calls to local health services rather than expose police to a potential infection. However, police chiefs have been quick to point out that they are still responding to calls for domestic violence. Some cities have seen an increase in domestic violence calls, while other areas have seen fewer calls, which has alarmed authorities on the suspicion that domestic violence reports have dropped out of fear because abusers and abusees are locked in together.

Violating stay-at-home orders

Another change in police posture has come with respect to general enforcement. Crime has dropped worldwide as a result of stay-at-home orders, though at the same time police have increasingly dealt with violations of stay-at-home orders. Police have not been issuing citations simply for violating the order, however. Police sergeants and executives around the country are asking individuals to voluntarily disperse instead. Other law enforcement agencies have decided not to enforce the stay-at-home and face mask orders because police chiefs are unsure how to enforce rules with no penalties.

Violations of stay-at-home orders have only increased recently as groups have taken to the streets to protest what they view as an overly restrictive mandate.

Violations of stay-at-home orders have only increased recently as groups have taken to the streets to protest what they view as an overly restrictive mandate. The Police Executive Research Forum has published guidelines on its website regarding best practices for dealing with protesters. Among the key takeaways is that the stay-at-home protests have attracted a variety of other groups, including gun rights advocates, white supremacists and prisoners’ rights advocates and that these rallies are becoming increasingly partisan. This confluence of interest groups represents a potentially dangerous situation for officers’ safety, as taking a hands-on approach to dealing with these protesters may lead to violence (PERF 2020B). Police are encouraged to work with the demonstrators to set ground rules before the demonstration.

Officer layoffs and shortages

A number of cities are facing budget shortfalls resulting from the lack of tax revenue, according to a survey of 2,400 cities by the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Although the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka CARES Act, does provide financial relief to cities, it is only to cities with a population of 500,000 or greater — approximately 1.5% of the 2,400 cities surveyed.

Although large, densely populated cities have an increased susceptibility to outbreaks of COVID-19, the economic downturn still affects cities with populations of 50,000 and above, which will mean budget cuts to public services — including police and firefighters. Hardest hit by this has been Ohio, where public services are funded by income tax and not property tax, which means that as people are out of work, there is an unexpected decline in tax revenue.

Many mayors in Ohio are facing the reality that they may have to lay off some police and firefighters. Another example of the difficult decisions that city governments are facing is in Topeka, Kansas, where police and firefighter unions have criticized a proposed 3% cut in salary in the city’s upcoming budget. Also, the health of many officers has already been compromised, further complicating the problem of a limited pool of labor. An example of a health-compromised police force is the New York Police Department, which has around 4,000 of 36,000 officers infected. Twenty-nine had died as of April 19; 5,324 more have called in sick.

The outlook

The most difficult part of dealing with the novel coronavirus is that no one knows what will happen next. Police and first responders are doing their level best to balance law enforcement with the need to maintain public safety. Thankfully, numerous resources have been made available to police to help sustain them during this difficult time. These public servants deserve our respect and thanks for their service.

Dr. Matthew Fischer is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Norwich University.

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