Oct. 12, 2020 -- Before the pandemic, police investigations were discussed at large command post meetings, officers typically rode with a buddy, and training academy classes were always in person. Fast forward to the present and large meetings are now virtual, indoor rolls calls suspended, and police and sheriffs’ deputies wear masks and other PPE on duty and ride solo in patrol cars to maintain physical distance.
As essential workers, law enforcement officers have been on duty since the pandemic started, while most civilian staff have worked remotely or, more recently, seen a combination of remote and in-person work.
A recent poll by the National Police Foundation shows health and safety is the biggest concern of law enforcement officers who have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic since it began 7 months ago.
That concern is understandable. More than 100 law enforcement officers -- mainly police, sheriffs, and corrections -- have died from COVID-19 on the job this year, which is more than from gun violence, car accidents, heart attacks, or other causes, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
The nonprofit agency reported 39 officers died in both April and July, the highest numbers so far, while the numbers have declined somewhat in August and September.
Officer Down told The Washington Post last month that it’s verifying an additional 150 officer deaths due to COVID-19 that are presumed to have been contracted in the line of duty.
More than 6,000 officers, 4% of law enforcement personnel nationwide, reported being exposed to COVID-19, and one-third have been unable to return to work. The three states with the largest coronavirus exposure rates for law enforcement are California, New York, and Texas. In New York City alone, more than 4,000 officers tested positive and 27 members of the department died by the end of April.
Sixty-seven out of 2,900 state troopers in New Jersey have tested positive, and one civilian security guard has died from COVID-19, says Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the state’s police department in West Trenton, NJ.
In Seattle, another large police department with 1,344 police officers and 613 civilians, 11 have tested positive with no deaths, Sgt. Randy Huserick said in an email.
County police and sheriff departments have also been impacted. Since February, 23 staff members of the 600-member sheriff’s office in Dane County, WI, tested positive, including a training deputy who died from COVID-19 in August, says Sheriff David Mahoney, president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. Two deputies were hospitalized and put on ventilators and, while recovering, are not able to work yet.
Small police departments in towns such as Avon Lake, near Cleveland, have less staff in reserve to help when officers get sick.
“Three guys being out is 10% of our workforce, and you don't want to be down 10% for an extended period of time,” says Lt. Vince Molnar of the town's Police Department.
Fatigue has started to set in for New Jersey State troopers who have been working 7 days a week since the pandemic started. Vacation days have been put on hold, and troopers with children at home are facing new challenges with childcare and virtual learning, which has made staffing and scheduling time off more complicated, says Lt. Col. Geoffrey Noble, deputy superintendent of the NJPD.
“We have stressed all CDC protocols to ensure that we can keep our state troopers and civilians safe,” Callahan says.
Temperature checks are done routinely for staff or anyone entering a police station or sheriff’s office, and work stations and patrol cars are cleaned and sanitized daily. Visitors to the NJPD stations have to wear masks, remain in the lobby area, and talk to the desk sergeant through a plexiglass shield, Callahan says. A visit to the station would be necessary, for example, to pick up someone arrested for driving while intoxicated.
A major change for detectives going to a crime scene is they now “bring a handful of masks, hand sanitizers, and thermometers for temperature checks to use for anyone they come in contact with. We require them to automatically mask up,” Noble says.
How they staff their squads has also changed. “The first thing we did was split the state trooper squads in half -- so if there was normally 20 in a squad and 10 were told to isolate and stay home, we had a bulkhead in reserve who could work,” Callahan says.
The department has also changed how they handle murder investigations. “We have moved away from a single command post with 30 personnel meeting together. Instead, we tell the representatives of various units and agencies to congregate at their offices and stations and use virtual meetings to conduct briefings, exchange information, and manage assignments,” Noble says.
The downside of fewer personnel at crime scene investigations became apparent recently. “We had a unique situation where one of our detectives was following up on a home invasion investigation and he ended up by himself. Twelve suspects returned to the scene of the crime and ambushed and shot him. He survived and is recovering,” Noble says.
That was a reminder “that we have to stay true to our core values and to be tactically sound first and protect ourselves from COVID second,” Noble says.
Changes in Community Policing
How police and sheriff departments respond to 911 calls has also changed. “Many of the calls that don't require a police response are handled over the phone, with officers making a report after gathering all of the necessary information during the phone call,” says Huserick, of the Seattle PD.
In Dane County, WI, “We’ve set up a non-emergency line to handle these calls. We rely on 911 communicators to drill down on the call to see what’s involved -- for example, if it’s a burglary with property taken but the offender isn’t there and there’s no risk to personal safety and no evidence needs to be collected, we might take the information by phone rather than send a deputy there to interact with the individual,” Mahoney says.
The Omaha, NE, police department closed all its precincts to the public and created a call center to manage low-level offenses such as auto theft to avoid sending out patrols.
The police department in Howard County, MD, about 40 miles northeast of Washington, DC, encourages their residents to report non-emergency incidents online, “so that an officer does not have to take a report in person,” says spokesperson Seth Hoffman in an email.
In addition, anyone arrested in Howard County must be transported to booking in a specific vehicle that is sanitized after every transport, Hoffman says.
The New Jersey Police Department went a step further to protect their officers by collaborating with the department of health to flag addresses for people who tested positive for COVID-19.
“We wanted to make sure that first responders, whether the police, firefighters, or emergency technicians, knew that someone in that house tested positive and to wear PPE and not let their guard down regardless of the type of call it was,” Callahan says.
The Vera Institute of Justice recommends curtailing mass enforcement of low-level offenses to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. Specifically, the institute recommends that law enforcement agencies temporarily release people on a citation, ticket, or summons instead of taking them into custody, unless there is an immediate identifiable risk to physical safety or someone is charged with a serious felony.
The warrant process hasn’t changed in New Jersey, but troopers are encouraged to follow this best practice and issue summons instead for minor infractions, according to Callahan.
The Dane County Sheriff’s Office has cut their jail population by nearly half at their three facilities from about 860 when the pandemic started to an average of 400 to 500 inmates, Mahoney says. There were 529 inmates in the jail on Oct. 4, according to a jail report.
“We asked law enforcement to look for every opportunity to not bring people to jail. We told them we can’t guarantee they won’t get COVID-19 and if they’re exposed in jail, they may bring it back to the community once they’re released,” Mahoney says.
Other examples include the Miami-Dade Police Department, which told officers to issue “promise to appear” or civil citations for all misdemeanor offenses unless there are “exigent circumstances.” The department has also advocated for the reporting of certain crimes online and suspended eviction assistance and several other in-person services, according to the Vera Institute.
The Rockford, IL, police department has told officers to issue notice to appear citations instead of making arrests for all misdemeanor crimes, says the institute.
Despite COVID-19, the police training academy run by the New Jersey Police Department graduated 165 new troopers last month, Noble said in an email.
The class started in January at a National Guard facility in Sea Girt and went remote after 4 weeks from February to mid-March. Recruits paused training and were assigned to COVID response for 8 weeks (field hospitals, field testing sites, and temperature check sites). They resumed training this summer at the College of New Jersey (which had closed to students), according to Noble.
“Unlike previous academy classes where they could go home on weekends, this class of trainees had to agree to not leave the college campus while they were in training until they graduated,” Callahan says.
This is the first pandemic that Callahan and Noble -- like most law enforcement leaders -- have contended with during their time on the police force. The two commanders want to create a playbook of what worked well and lessons learned for the next generation.
“Looking back, it’s somewhat of a blur, seems like 10 years have gone by,” Callahan says.
Both Callahan and Mahoney are worried about a spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall when the weather turns colder and drives people inside. “When the weather changes, all that outdoor seating will end. Wisconsin is still at 25% capacity for indoor seating,” Mahoney says.