Role of Law Enforcement During COVID-19 Pandemic

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As states and local governments declare shelter-in-place orders and shut down non-essential businesses, law enforcement officers will need to enforce these rules and disperse crowds of people at gatherings and other events. There is some apprehension that enforcement actions could require detention and fines, which could raise additional public safety and civil liberty concerns. Local government officials understanding of the critical role law enforcement plays in their community will shape the effectiveness of the local government’s plans to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.   

Communications

State and local government’s policies related to COVID-19 should be clearly communicated to all local law enforcement officers. Local law enforcement leaders should clearly establish how officers are to interact with the community and enforce the rules. Officers should be prepared to answer questions about testing kit availability, travel restrictions, quarantine and isolation, and personal safety measures (including who the public should call for such information). The role of law enforcement should be focused on informing the public about the current restrictions and encouraging individuals to comply with the state and local emergency health declarations.  

Arrest and Detention

City leaders need to work with their law enforcement leaders to make sure officers have clear guidance on the proper procedures regarding the isolation and detention of infected community members. Law enforcement officers should be provided information about how to detain or isolate a person who is perceived as having an infectious disease, including how to handle situations when a person fails to comply. Policies should clearly stipulate how to handle arrests. Law enforcement may also need to identify a location other than the local jail for detention and isolation of individuals who do not comply with health emergency declarations. These locations should ensure that social distancing guidelines are followed.   

Officer Health and Safety

Local officials should also understand the considerable risk law enforcement officers face in potentially being infected by the COVID-19 virus. Like health practitioners, law enforcement and other first responders will most likely encounter an infected individual. In addition to potential hazards related to contracting the COVID-19 virus, law enforcement officers could also experience considerable stress during this time Increased pressures and continued obligations outside of work, along with the potential of family members falling ill, will create stress, fear and anxiety. Law enforcement agencies should have in place a plan for critical incident stress management to address officer physical and emotional well-being and provide support services for officers and their families. Law enforcement officers should also be encouraged to develop personal plans in case they are required to be away from their families for extended periods of time.  

Staffing

It is critical that law enforcement agencies develop a contingency plan for potential staffing shortages as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, smaller and more rural law enforcement agencies may not have the backup number of officers that are needed if one, two or more officers get infected. Consideration should be given to alternative staffing methods, such as shared service provision with neighboring agencies, swing shifts, mandatory overtime, cancellation of leave and non-essential travel, and repurposing of officer flex time. It is important to cross-train personnel for temporary duty reassignment to assure proper coverage of essential duties. Your law enforcement agencies should evaluate what services require an on-scene police presence versus those that can be handled by alternative means, such as by phone or online.  

Click here for more information on what local law enforcement should consider for COVID-19.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has launched a COVID-19 centralized clearinghouse to provide the resources departments need to keep officers and their communities safe. 

About the Author: Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the legislative director for public safety at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.