By March 23, just a few weeks after the outbreak and lockdowns began, COVID-19 had substantially changed law enforcement agency operations. According to an International Association of Chiefs of Police survey, 57% of responding agencies had experienced significant declines in their calls for service, with 14% of respondents reporting more than a 50% reduction. Seventy-two percent of agencies had activated telephone, internet, or teleconference systems to respond to calls for service and take reports remotely. Three out of four agencies had provided formal guidance to officers to reduce their reliance on physical arrests for minor offenses.
At the time this report was released, 3.5% of police personnel had been exposed to COVID-19; 1.2% were unable to work, and 36.3% of police agencies lacked sufficient personal protective equipment, with particulate respirators in particularly short supply. At least 114 police officers have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
The economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, combined with calls to “defund the police” in the wake of recent police killings of civilians, are affecting the budgets of many law enforcement agencies. Nearly half (48%) of agencies of all sizes report that their budgets have been decreased or likely will be decreased in the next fiscal year. Another 27% said their budgets would be unchanged, and only 16% expected budget increases. That said, among the 50 largest cities that have adopted fiscal year 2021 budgets, only New York, Los Angeles, and a few others have made deep cuts to police departments, while most have increased spending or held it constant.
Protect personnel and the public they serve from COVID-19.
Provide officers with adequate training and appropriate protective gear to minimize health risks to themselves and those with whom they interact. Consistent with CDC guidance, require officers to wear surgical masks indoors and when interacting with the public outdoors. N-95 masks, eye protection, and latex gloves may also be appropriate for encounters involving an elevated risk of transmission. Strictly enforce the wearing of personal protective gear.
Adopt aggressive testing protocols, secure access to testing facilities for those with symptoms of COVID-19 or contacts of people with COVID-19, and explore testing options for screening asymptomatic personnel on a regular basis with rapid antigen testing. Consider establishing a dedicated first-responder testing site.
Adopt policies to physically distance officers from one another when possible. Agencies should consider the use of pods, working groups, and split shifts in order to minimize exposure. They should also promote remote work arrangements while avoiding large in-person events.
Protests and demonstrations during the coronavirus pandemic present unique challenges. Modify preexisting strategies for facilitating such events to protect the health and well-being of police offers, participants, and the public at large. Considerations should include physical distancing, masking, minimizing in-custody arrests, and other preventative measures. Consider utilizing a harm-reduction approach, as recommended by the National Governors Association, for policing such mass gatherings.
Support personnel in relation to COVID-19.
In addition to taking the measures above, provide personnel with accessible and reliable information concerning COVID-19 and support those exposed to the virus. Establish counseling services and wellness units to address officers’ mental, emotional, and physical health concerns. Provide alternative housing arrangements for those who must isolate or quarantine. Consider, as a number of states have done, issuing orders or passing legislation to establish that when an officer becomes infected with COVID-19, that infection is presumed to have occurred in the line of duty. This presumption is typically rebuttable and may be controverted by other evidence.
Limit in-person contacts between police and citizens.
Minimize in-person, face-to-face interactions in order to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Non-urgent calls for service, including calls for lost property, minor vehicular accidents with no injuries, and nonviolent misdemeanor offenses where the offender is not present and there is no recoverable evidence, may be handled over the phone or via an online reporting system.
Consider fuller use of referrals to non-police service providers, such as street outreach workers, mental health professionals, or social workers. Proper protocols and training should be in place to ensure coordination. Also consider deploying non-sworn, unarmed community service officers for nonviolent, non-serious incidents.
While proactive policing efforts may be required to address homicides, shootings, felony assaults, and other serious violent crimes, evidence-based strategies exist to both effectively reduce violence and limit unnecessary physical contact between law enforcement and the public. Tailor efforts to only the highest risk people and places that account for a disproportionately large share of such violence. Focusing solely on stops, searches, and arrests should be avoided, and community-based strategies should be adopted to supplement police efforts.
Limit use of custody.
Absent an immediate and/or serious threat to public safety, issue warnings, summons, citations, or tickets in lieu of arrest. Delay planned or scheduled arrests unless the person to be arrested is considered dangerous. Charge police officers with enforcing public health guidelines only as a last resort; other authorities are able to achieve similar levels of compliance with fewer collateral consequences.
Allocate resources strategically.
Rather than resorting to layoffs that trigger “last hired, first fired” labor contract clauses to reduce payroll, consider alternatives such as attrition, limiting overtime, and offering comp time. Increase use of civilians to further reduce costs. Use video teleconferencing and other alternative means of communication to engage community members when face-to-face interaction is not appropriate or advisable.
Communicate clearly with staff, public safety partners, and the public.
Communicate proactively and creatively with personnel via audio and video channels as well as in writing. Convey facts in a clear and candid manner to minimize speculation and confusion. Provide accessible and reliable information concerning COVID-19 using instruments such as 24/7 hotlines and liaisons who are medical professionals.
Communicate proactively with other law enforcement partners, such as prosecutors, to agree on arrest and prosecution guidelines and identify lists of “bookable” offenses. Where possible, coordinate and share data with courts, jails, and other partners.
Clearly communicate with the public concerning COVID-19 decisions, policies, and information. Publicly and quickly release data concerning COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.