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Policing In The Time Of COVID-19: How Departments Across The Country Are Coping With New And Unique Challenges

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has altered how law enforcement officers do their daily jobs, whether it's out on the streets or in an interview room.

By Jill Sederstrom
Sheriff Talks Challenges Agencies Are Facing Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Maintaining order during a pandemic has its challenges.

Although law enforcement officers are continuing to go to work each day, they are faced with an evolving landscape, changing rules for society and an ever present need to balance their own safety with the safety of the community.

Officials have reported drops in crimes like driving under the influence, but there’s been a spike in some parts of the county in domestic violence, speeding or commercial burglaries as more Americans stay home and many businesses have—at least temporarily—shuttered.

“For our specific agency, the COVID crisis has had a huge impact on how we’ve had to change operations, how we interact with ourselves internally and also how we interact with the public,” Lt. Dan Peak, public information officer for the Chula Vista Police Department in California told Oxygen.com.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country, an increasing number of law enforcement officers and jail staff are also being exposed and infected—creating concerns about manpower and staffing shortages.

“If you go and there’s an officer that’s positive, everyone he came in contact with at roll call or various places that entire shift could be basically exposed and so under an ideal situation you’d send a whole shift home,” Daron Hall, a Nashville sheriff and president of the National Sheriff’s Association, told Oxygen.com. “Well, law enforcement can’t really survive doing that.”

Changing how services are delivered

Law enforcement officers continue to perform many of the same duties they’ve always delivered, but in some cases how that's done has had to evolve to adhere to safety recommendations, social distancing constraints and the current needs within the community.

In Dallas, detectives in the department’s Crimes Against Persons Division, which investigates homicides, robberies and assaults, are now spread out throughout the city and are working from nine libraries rather than a central location to conduct interviews and interrogations as a way to comply with social distancing guidelines, Sgt. Warren C. Mitchell told Oxygen.com.

Mitchell said the change “has not hindered” the department’s ability to conduct thorough investigations and make arrests but has added an element of safety for the community and department’s detectives.

“Officers are practicing social distancing in every way possible when responding to 911 calls,” he said. “Officers are still conducting traffic stops. However, officers are not requiring violators to sign the citation. Instead, officers are documenting COVID-19 in the signature block and making a note of the stop on their body cams.”

Many departments across the country have also adopted a cite and release approach to lower-level non-violent crimes, citing those suspects for misdemeanors and releasing them rather than booking them into jail.

The goal of the strategy is to reduce the number of people being housed inside the country’s jails—where the spread of COVID-19 is significant concern.

“Officers are encouraged to use discretion when it comes to making arrests or citing for low level non-violent misdemeanor offenses,” Mitchell said.

In Chula Vista, Peak said the state of California provided guidance on which offenses, including homicides, domestic-violence related issues and DUIs, should still be considered bookable offenses in the state.

When officers are in public, Peak said they are wearing masks and that they try to maintain the six-foot social distancing rule.

“The officers have extra masks on them and they’ll hand it to a citizen and ask them to put it on if they are not wearing one,” he said.

In New York City, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a briefing last week that the department has Tyvek suits available for detectives and police who have to transport people with known cases of COVID.

Officers who have to transport sex assault victims or others to the hospital for reasons other than COVID-19 have been given special packs with booties and another type of protective suit to try to keep them safe.

“If you are going into a hospital as part of your functions, you shouldn’t be going in there blind,” Shea said.

But even with the protective gear, law enforcement officers may still be at risk.

“You know even if they are wearing a mask … all bets are off when you get in a brawl and that happens for the police every day, in every city,” Chris Berg, a retired detective and co-author of the book “The Night Police” told Oxygen.com. “I think in the long run, it’s going to really impact law enforcement because there are going to be times where they are going to be exposed and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it.”

Peak said while officers learn in the police academy how to interact with a dangerous subject or how to verbally de-escalate a situation, they haven’t been taught how to handle a combat situation or challenging interaction in a “hot zone for the deadly virus that could potentially kill you.”

“It’s a game changer and something that, you know, we come in on minimal training on,” he said. “Overall, it’s a health issue.”

Addressing staffing shortages

According to Hall, one of the most significant issues impacting sheriff's offices around the country’s sheriff’s offices are staffing shortages, both on the street and in the jails.

“To me, that’s the most common conversation you hear about is how are we going to manage the jails when you have exposure cases and staff sent home and what do you do about patrolling the streets when you’ve got people who, obviously we don’t want them to come to work if they are sick, but we need people here,” he said.

In Nashville, Hall said that means law enforcement officers are directed not to come to work if they feel sick or have a fever but are still allowed to report for duty if they’ve just been exposed by a partner or family member.

“Originally people were saying 'Well stay home for 14 days and make sure you don’t bring it to work.' Well, we don’t have the fortune anymore. So, what you’re doing is saying come to work, if you’re positive we’re gonna send you home. If you’re symptomatic, we’re gonna send you home but we don’t have the latitude that a lot of other professions have,” he said.

The New York City Police Department has also had to contend with significant shortages.

At its peak, Shea said a total of 7,155 people in uniform were out sick, representing about 20 percent of the department.

Last week, during his briefing, he said the number of those in uniform out sick had dropped to 16.7 percent.

“The good news is it's going down every single day,” he said. “The not great news is it’s a slow and steady process, so it’s going to take time.”

A total of 4,190 in the department have tested positive for the virus.

Shea said the department had been able to manage the shortage because of the drop in crime overall and by shifting the duties of some within the department.

Peak said Chula Vista Police Department has not had an officer test positive for COVID-19 yet, but the department has taken a proactive approach to minimize close contact between officers. For instance, all employees inside the building are instructed to where masks unless they are behind a closed office door.

Briefings are also being held in a large gathering area where officers are at least six-feet apart.

“We’re asking officers to check their temperature. We have thermometers throughout the building, so they are constantly checking their temperatures to make sure they are not having a fever,” he said.

Peak said the department also switched from having three daily shifts to two longer shifts to minimize transitions and contact between officers. The department opted to switch back to their regular schedule on Friday but will continue to assess it on a weekly basis.

One of the biggest staffing challenges for many counties is in the jails, where outbreaks can spread among inmates and staffers due to the close proximity of those housed inside.

“In my opinion, this is the first thing we’ve had that really the more dangerous part of law enforcement is once you get the person to jail because clearly we don’t know how sick they are, you can’t you know, test them immediately and get a result immediately so you’re living with these people for three or four days. You cannot practice social distancing in jail facilities,” Hall said. “It is a very, very difficult place to be.”

Impact on crime

As more people are staying at home, authorities are also seeing a shift in the types of frequently reported crimes.

In Nashville, driving under the influence (DUI) arrests are down 57%, Hall said. But other crimes, like those related to domestic violence, are on the rise across the country.

Peak said his department saw an 11 percent increase in domestic violence-related incidents, according to figures from earlier this month.

Evita Caldwell, public information officer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department ,told Oxygen.com they had also seen a slight increase in domestic violence. In February, there were 1,300 domestic disturbance calls, up from 1,197 the year before. The department also saw an increase in March calls, from 1,422 in 2019 to 1,439 in 2020.

The Kansas City Police Department reported a 26% increase in 911 calls for domestic violence in the city compared to data from last year, according to The Kansas City Star.

“It is unsettling,” Capt. Tim Hernandez, who supervises the department’s special victims’ unit told the outlet. “We understand what is going on and that it’s going to be harder for victims to contact and call the police. But we still want those in a harmful or dangerous situation to get a hold of us.”

Hall believes the reason for the increase is because Americans are stuck in their homes without an ability to “take a breather, or a break from one another and everything else that goes on in life” and said many families are also struggling with stress and financial concerns.

“What worries me is if our country doesn’t start to open up and give those outlets, it’s going to be very hard to contain" the potential for domestic violence moving forward, he said.

Domestic violence isn’t the only form of crime on the rise.  

Shea said in New York City they’ve seen a “dramatic drop” in radio calls to police and recorded crime overall, but have seen an “uptick” in some parts of the city in terms of shootings and homicides. The city has also seen a “significant uptick” in commercial burglaries, he said in last week’s briefing.

There also may be less traffic on American roadways, but a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) revealed a “severe spike” in speeding incidents, according to ABC News.  

“Unfortunately, speeding hurts everybody because now we’ve got to pull you over, stop, you know, expose you and myself all over something that really is pretty simple for the individual to control,” Hall said.

In a video message on social media, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said his investigators in Florida had seen a “tremendous uptick” in online stalking of children now that children are home and “spending hours and hours on the computer” with their friends.

“One of our investigators is working a case right now on a gentleman that attempted to have a sexual relationship with an 11-year-old,” Morgan said. “So, these people are in our communities, unfortunately, and they are preying upon our children, so it’s incumbent upon all of us, not just in law enforcement but certainly the citizens of Escambia County, especially you parents to please, please monitor your children.”

Challenges to investigations

The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines have also impacted the way authorities are able to do investigative work.

Peak said investigations typically rely heavily on interviews conducted in close contact with witnesses, victims and suspects.

“It’s changed now to where those interactions can still take place, but they have to be with both parties wearing a mask and, you know, they are also trying to keep their distance at the same time.”

Investigators also often to interview people in their homes—which could now be putting officers at greater risk.

“The other challenge is going and interviewing witnesses and talking to people in houses in which you don’t know what the medical status of that individual is or the home, and clearly having the PPEs (personal protective equipment) and the availability of that when you are knocking on doors … where six months ago we never would have worried about it,” Hall said.

Hall said it will be important for authorities to have ready access to the protective equipment they need in the months ahead, but doesn’t see the additional obstacles as blockers to conducting thorough investigations.

“I don’t see it changing the outcome,” he said. “It will put in some barriers such as time we gotta get dressed and go in and do things to be prepared.”

Berg, who is retired as a detective but continues to work for a California county to do background work and internal affairs investigations, said those types of tasks have been shut down for the most part.

“On the internal affairs side, that is very, very interview- (and) interrogation-heavy and what it’s really done is put the clamps on it,” he said. “Instead of being able to process a case maybe in two weeks, I can’t even tell you what it’s going to look like because there’s about a third as many people in the office doing the investigations and they are taking way longer because we can’t deal with them like we want to and in a way that’s appropriate because it’s just not safe to do so.”

One aspect helping law enforcement officers is that the court systems have slowed down, giving investigators more time to gather evidence and prepare for prosecution, Hall said.

“If you’re the victim of a case, that’s the most important case in the whole system to you and so you deserve to make sure that that doesn’t slip through the cracks, or get ignored, or watered down or anything else and so the only thing I would say is it may delay it a little bit because we’ve got court shut down and everything else,” Hall said. “It does not mean individuals are going to get off with a lesser sanction or anything else. It’s just awaiting justice.”

As the country continues to adjust to its new normal in the months ahead, Hall said one of biggest challenges for law enforcement officers will just be to keep up with the changing rules and restrictions governing each city.

“It’s a challenging time and each day the target moves a little bit because they are trying to keep up with the experts and the scientists and the data,” he said.

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