Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement will remain an essential function, just like healthcare. As with other emergencies and natural disasters, leaders must give consideration to how law enforcement will function during the emergency. In order to maintain a high level of public safety, it is essential that law enforcement consider how operations will impact close contact spread of COVID-19 and what steps law enforcement can consider to aid in controlling the virus.
In the considerations below, Jack Ryan from the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute recommends a reactive law enforcement model to limit officer exposure.
- Consider limiting law enforcement operations to those calls of a serious nature where there is an immediate need for investigation or there is a threat of injury to a person. This can include murder, rape, robbery, arson, kidnapping, domestic assault, assault in progress, etc. Note this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it should convey the idea that if no person is in danger then law enforcement should not respond and expose officers.
- Consider limiting proactive enforcement. On every person-to-person contact, officers are potentially exposed to persons who are contagious. In every traffic stop, pedestrian stop, and any other contact, the officer will be in close proximity to the subject. The officer may be handling items such as license and registration that the subject just handled. As such, officers can become exposed and be placed under a 14-day quarantine. In such events, the overall numbers of public safety personnel available will thereby be diminished, leaving not enough officers available to handle serious public safety events. A common practice in natural disasters is to place officers in a fixed position. The officers do not respond to most calls for service during the heightened phase of the storm. Our current storm is COVID-19, and a similar approach makes sense.
- When no one is in danger, consider handling calls telephonically. Reports of thefts, property damage and even minor vehicle accidents can be taken over the telephone. One consideration for agencies with school resource officers is to utilize SROs as part of this function, since schools are not in session in most places.
- Consider instructing officers to exercise discretion and avoid arrests for minor offenses such as property crimes that do not endanger others. A concern for law enforcement is the spreading of COVID-19 to officers, corrections personnel and other persons housed in the jail. Additionally, with courts throughout the country being closed, these arrests will only further backlog the system. Limiting the number of persons housed in a jail or correction facility also plays a role in reducing the potential spread of COVID-19 in jails.
- When charging an individual with a crime is necessary, consider citing and releasing the individual rather than taking the subject to a lockup facility.
- Consider matters of transportation. Due to the responsibility law enforcement has to the health and safety of arrestees, vehicles must be disinfected after the transport of a prisoner so that the next arrestee will not be exposed. Limiting the number of transports by discouraging nonessential arrests reduces the number of exposures.
- Consider the temporary use of flex-cuffs in place of handcuffs. One of the most common spread points being cited is by hand-to-hand contact. Handcuffs have always been considered by law enforcement to be a breeding ground for germs and has led officers to routinely disinfect their handcuffs. In order to minimize handcuffs as a potential carrier of COVID-19, officers are encouraged to use plastic flex-cuffs instead of handcuffs. The flex-cuffs can be single-use and disposed of rather than trying to disinfect handcuffs.
- Officers should be provided with and directed to use latex gloves on all calls for service that they respond to. A trash receptacle should be placed in their vehicle where the gloves can be disposed of following each call.
- Officers should be directed to maintain safe distances during interviews and other contact with victims, witnesses, suspects or residents.
- Officers who are assigned to duties in the station should be directed to disinfect their work area at the start and completion of each shift. This should include telephones, computer keyboards and any surfaces the officer has touched. Agencies, to the extent possible, should limit the use of shared workspaces during this emergency.
- Officers, particularly with shared vehicles, should be directed to disinfect the passenger compartment of their vehicle at the start and end of each shift. This process should include computer/MDT keyboards, all accessory buttons, door handles and any other surfaces generally touched.
Every contact that law enforcement has with any member of the public has the potential for exposure to COVID-19. Public safety will be dramatically impacted by a spike in exposed officers who are forced into quarantine. As with weather related disasters where law enforcement activities are limited during the height of the storm, law enforcement must consider using these same principles during this health-related emergency.