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April 2, 2020

Ask the expert: Protecting police and first responders during COVID-19

Unlike millions of Americans who can work from home during the COVID-19 crisis, police officers and first responders are on the front lines keeping the public safe. Protective measures like shelter-in-place and social distancing aren’t always an option for these individuals, leaving them at a higher risk for catching the novel coronavirus as they perform their critical jobs.

Scott Wolfe, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, explains that agencies around the country are finding ways to protect the people serving the public. However, police and first responders are still at a greater risk than those they protect and are also suffering from a shortage of protective supplies.

Moving forward, Wolfe also explains ways agencies and the public can support these important professions during the current pandemic.

Now that the majority of states have shelter-in-place orders – and arrests have been made to prevent/shut down large gatherings – have the roles of police officers changed?

"The role of the police has remained the same: Enforce the law and serve the public. However, because of their broad mandate they now have new responsibilities.

"The police are responsible for enforcing shelter-in-place and related orders. Gathering in large groups is a serious public health danger – indeed, it is a matter of life and death. Accordingly, the police will take seriously people that refuse to obey such directives that are put in place to save peoples’ lives. Fortunately, it appears a large portion of the public is obeying the shelter-in-place orders so officers don’t have to deal with too many problems yet.

"Another issue to note is that the police aren’t chomping at the bit to arrest people for being in public or in groups. Almost all of the time the police are dealing with such problems in an informal manner without arrest or citation.

"Policing is always at the front lines of responding to societal problems. They are tasked with responding to our country’s mental health crisis. They must deal with violent people despite intense public pressure and criticism … the list goes on. COVID-19 is now the most pressing problem we have faced in generations and our police will be there to respond. The role is the same, but their responsibilities now include having to be concerned with a new infectious disease while protecting the public."

Have police forces taken additional measures to protect officers? In your opinion, what measures would be most effective?

"Agencies around the country have taken many measures to protect their officers and the public. It seems some of the best measures will be consistent with what the general public is being told to do. Social distancing is something many of us can easily do by working at home, but police and other first responders and medical workers cannot work remotely.

"When a 911 call goes out, the police must respond. Accordingly, many agencies are engaging in the best social distancing measures they can. Most command staff members – chiefs and their staff – are working remotely to avoid all of them getting sick at the same time. Cell phones, email and Zoom are instrumental to the police in this regard. For individual patrol officers, roll calls (pre-shift meetings) have changed considerably in many agencies. Some roll-call briefing rooms have strict social distancing rules, while other agencies now hold roll calls outside or have done away with them altogether.

"The process of responding to calls for service has changed in some agencies. The 911 call dispatchers now have lists of questions to ask callers regarding whether anyone at the address has COVID-19 symptoms. This information can then be relayed to the responding officers so they can take appropriate precautions.

"Lastly, many agencies have rigorous self-quarantining policies in place to keep sick officers or those that may have had contact with a person with COVID-19 at home. The Detroit Police Department, for example, has over 600 employees quarantined and 78 who have tested positive for COVID-19. They must take quarantining seriously because Detroit, like other cities, cannot risk having a large decrease in the number of officers on the street."

There’s a big conversation about the personal protective equipment, or PPE, shortage in hospitals. What shortages are law enforcement and first responders facing?

"Law enforcement is facing the same types of shortages with PPE. There are many difficult decisions to be made regarding whether first responders or hospital staff should get PPE when an entire state – and country – is facing a shortage. Fortunately, many more agencies are getting access to the needed PPE compared to when this crisis began. But, there are still serious shortfalls across the US. The Bureau of Justice Assistance just released a grant solicitation to assist local police agencies to fund COVID-19 related supplies including PPE. Hopefully this helps.

Some of the virus hotspots are in high-crime cities. What crime-related trends are we seeing in these areas?

"We are currently seeing significant drops in calls for service and reported crime in many agencies around the country. This is good news for obvious reasons but also because it may be a good indicator that many people are taking the social distancing guidelines seriously. Detroit has seen a large drop in nearly all crimes during the past few weeks. Only domestic-related calls for service seem to have remained unchanged. Other cities around Michigan have experienced similar trends."

Is there a way the public can be helping officers and first responders?

"One way to help the police and other first responders is to say “thank you” every chance we get. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and email can all be used to communicate this message. It is important for our first responders to have high morale which can be incredibly difficult during the crisis we are facing. Letting them know we appreciate what they do for us can go a long way in making tough days easier to manage.

"People can also help officers by being patient with their new procedures. Officers aren’t trying to be asocial by keeping distance between members of the public. They are trying to remain well like all of us. Additionally, if they ask probing questions about symptoms, it is simply because they want to ensure the safety of all. Being honest and transparent will help all of us in the long run."

By: Caroline Brooks