Policing During the Coronavirus Pandemic

A NYPD police officer looks on as a woman crosses Seventh Avenue in New York City on April 12, 2020.

With the criminal justice system vulnerable to the rapid spread of COVID-19, maintaining the status quo means jeopardizing the lives of those connected to the system. Many officials and advocates have rightfully focused on the need to immediately reduce jail and prison populations, especially since the lack of sufficient medical attention, unsanitary conditions, and overcrowding, among other obstacles, combine to create environments where the coronavirus can spread precipitously. The Cook County jail in Chicago, for example, currently has the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the country. Guidance from policy experts and advocates has provided a roadmap of how to safely and expeditiously lower the jail and prison population, and governors in Illinois and Kentucky have been taking initial steps. There may also be federal funding available to achieve this, as Congress included $850 million in the CARES Act for law enforcement to prevent and respond to the coronavirus.

At the same time, jurisdictions must do all they can to ensure that more people are not sent to jails and prisons during the pandemic. This begins with changing or modifying policing practices to make them consistent with public health guidelines to maintain physical distancing, which is essential for the health and safety of the public and of police officers themselves. Staffing levels at a number of law enforcement agencies have already been affected due to the spread of COVID-19. More than 2,000 New York City Police Department officers, for example, have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 20 percent of the 45,000-person police force is out sick. Meanwhile, in Detroit, 369 officers have been placed in quarantine, even after more than 400 recently returned from quarantine.

This column provides several recommendations for how police agencies can safely modify their practices in a fair and just manner to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. In an interview with the Center for American Progress,* Ron Davis, the former East Palo Alto, California, police chief and former head of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the U.S. Department of Justice, argues that these changes are consistent with principles of policing in the 21st century:

Police must now apply the public health model of “do no harm first” in making decisions, from arrests to uses of force. Making arrests must transition from being a common tool used by law enforcement to becoming literally a tool of last resort. This counters the notion that the only way to hold someone accountable in our society is to put handcuffs on him, because putting handcuffs now has a different meaning—not only for the person whose freedom is taken, but for the law enforcement officer who has to come within 6 feet to make that arrest. We, as a society, must find viable alternatives to incarceration.

Davis also dispels the notion that incorporating physical distancing or making other changes to policing practices will jeopardize public safety:

Police agencies must make a lot of adjustment to protect their officers and staff from this virus while assuring the public safety needs of the community. In making these changes, we must remember that less is not necessarily bad. The police alone cannot make a community safe. And we have learned over the years that simply adding more police does not equate to more public safety. It takes an entire community working with the police to sustain long-term public safety. So, as we decrease the physical footprint of law enforcement in the community, it doesn’t automatically mean that public safety is compromised or that crime is going to go up. It does mean, however, that the community must fill in the gaps that may exist with the reduction of police intervention—for example, increasing mental health services, drug rehabilitation, youth mentoring programs, etc., as alternatives to arrests, or using technology to reduce the need for police physical interactions. In short, we must reimagine policing so that it relies less on physical interventions and more on community partnerships.

Furthermore, it is essential that these policy recommendations are not only enacted by a department or jurisdiction but also implemented in a consistent manner. CAP tracked recently announced policies for ensuring that the general public adhered to state and local directives for social distancing. While many of those policies were appropriately restrained and focused on educating the public, news reports have shown some significant problems with their implementation. Thus, while announcing key steps is crucial, it is equally important that the entire agency understands the policy and consistently adheres to it.

Recommendations for policing during the COVID-19 pandemic

Below are several key recommendations that police departments from across the country have begun to implement to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and ensure communities’ safety.

Drastically reduce the number of police stops and custodial arrests

Departments should instruct officers to focus on the most serious cases and minimize enforcement actions for lower-level offenses. Individuals should be taken into custody only if they pose a clear risk to public safety. Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, for example, issued guidance instructing officers to delay arrests for many categories of nonviolent crimes, including all narcotics offenses, burglary, prostitution, vandalism, and others. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C. , Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham issued an order to expand the types of offenses that are eligible for citation and release, in an effort to reduce the volume of custodial arrests.

Limit the amount of calls for service that officers respond to in person

To reduce the spread of COVID-19 among police officers, agencies should issue guidance to reduce in-person responses to nonemergency issues. They should instead reserve in-person responses for issues that present an imminent threat to public safety or instances where investigation or evidence collection cannot be delayed. Agencies should also encourage the public to report nonurgent complaints via an online portal or nonemergency phone line.

Police agencies nationwide—including in Arlington, Virginia; Burbank, California; and Dallas—have encouraged the community to utilize their online reporting system for nonemergency incidents.

And in Syracuse, New York, the police department implemented a temporary shift in the way it handles calls for service, emphasizing the use of online and over-the-phone incident reporting.

Prioritize responding to and preventing domestic violence

While the majority of people under stay-at-home orders are safer in their homes, many, including survivors and those at risk of domestic violence, are not. Police responding to domestic-violence-related calls for services should be trained on the increased risks and warning signs of intimate partner violence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They should also work with local service providers to readily advertise hotline numbers and other resources alongside all public guidance related to COVID-19.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety, for instance, issued guidance to members of local law enforcement on its stay-at-home order, which listed “Relocation to ensure safety” as the No. 1 allowable activity. This means that those who are not safe in their homes may relocate to a safer place, such as the home of a family member, friend, or designated shelter, without violating the governor’s executive order. As another example, the French government has contracted with hotels to dramatically expand the country’s capacity for emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) of Chicago announced a partnership with ride-sharing services to provide free rides for individuals who contact the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline and need to relocate.

Obtain and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to every officer to use while on duty

Agencies and departments should educate officers on personal safety precautions, such as procedures for hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces and work equipment, and identifying symptoms of COVID-19. Agencies must also provide COVID-19 testing for officers and require them to remain at least 6 feet away from members of the public whenever possible.

Several police departments, including in Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia, are now requiring officers to wear masks while on duty, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that recommends Americans wear face coverings in public settings. In Los Angeles, patrol officers have received a PPE kit that contains a mask, goggles, and multiple pairs of gloves. The Los Angeles Police Department has also issued guidelines for officers on using PPE, interacting with the public, and protecting their health while on duty.

Consider contracting with local hotels to allow officers to isolate

As first responders, police are at high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Officers may need options to safely distance themselves from their own household and colleagues. Cities and districts should take steps to ensure police have access to alternative places to stay if necessary.

The city of Seattle, for example, contracted an entire hotel to provide accommodations for first responders and other essential city employees, including police, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS), and transportation workers.

Conclusion

This COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder that the safety of the community and officers are interrelated. Cities across the country must take immediate steps to ensure that everyone responsible for public safety—law enforcement and the community—is protected from this virus and future pandemics.

Ed Chung is the vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Betsy Pearl is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center. Lea Hunter is a research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.

* Authors’ note: This interview was conducted via email on April 10, 2020. Materials are on file with the authors.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.