By Dr. Obed Magny
COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is a respiratory illness that first emerged in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019. This novel coronavirus began life being passed from animals to humans, but quickly mutated to transmit from human to human. The most common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Those afflicted with COVID-19 may only have mild symptoms, but some may become severely ill and die. People that are already immunocompromised, have underlying health conditions, or are 65 years of age or older are at a higher risk for falling severely ill if they catch COVID-19.
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock somewhere, you are well aware that we are in a pandemic. COVID-19 has taken the world by storm, and many police departments are scrambling to find out the best course of action to balance the risk to their officers and the safety of their citizens. For most of us, we have never faced a crisis of this magnitude before. As I write this, there have already been over 10 million claims for unemployment in the United States. During the great recession of 2008, those numbers were not even close to what we are encountering today. Right now, police departments are scrambling to find solutions to address the needs of their employees. We at the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP) are looking at the impact on police and their communities. These impacts include which calls necessitate a response, PPE equipment, morale, crime rates, and other public safety issues related to the COVID-19. But as we are addressing the implications, more questions and concerns (many unforeseen) arise. For example, the normal level of stress officers constantly face being short-staffed is further exacerbated by this pandemic. Officers also may be experiencing heightened stress levels due to being at an increased risk for exposure to COVID-19 while on the job. In these circumstances, diminishing department morale, as well as all the mounting pressures from trying to maintain performance during a pandemic can be overwhelming. All of this has significant impacts on mental health and officer morale. What are agencies doing to help these officers in such challenging times? What is your agency’s protocol to maintain moral and mental health during this global crisis? Unfortunately, we are seeing what happens when such needs are not being addressed.
These issues are not just limited to police officers. Many of you reading this blog are stakeholders in ensuring your communities are safe. For those in Corrections, are the protocols in your institutions protecting you and the inmates in your institutions? Inmate release, for many institutions, is already underway to mitigate potential COVID-19 outbreaks. The new trend has amplified the conversation of who needs to be held in our correctional systems (besides most violent felons)? What strategies are incorporated to maintain (even increase) community engagement in keeping them apprised of new policies and procedures as they roll out? After all, maintaining trust in the community doesn’t stop just because of a global pandemic. There are those in our cities and towns (such as the immigrant population) we need to be in constant communication with if we want to curb this virus. Community trust and engagement with this population are being challenged significantly because of the fear of being set up for deportation purposes.
How is data tracked in your organization to ensure first responders are kept safe? You won’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve started. Documenting how many of your employees are out sick and quarantined; COVID-19 tested positive; how many deaths; should already be tracked. What about responding to dead body calls as a result of COVID-19; is extra PPE required? The elderly, others with lung disease, asthma, heart disease, cancer, severe obesity, others with underlying medical conditions, and the immunocompromised are at significant risk for COVID-19. Many of these symptoms are not seen with the naked eye, and having officers (especially those not tested yet) may be putting them more at risk.
With the information put out by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), police departments are still willingly sending their employees into significant danger. Scientists who are experts in the field are staying in front of this using research based evidence to guide protocols for safety in the face of this pandemic. Evidence-based policing is no different-using the data and the research around COVID-19 protocols for safety should already be in place to protect officers, but too many agencies are not utilizing this approach. Knowingly putting employees in this kind of threat, without an evidence-based policing mindset is not only gross negligence, it’s criminal.
Here are some trends happening around the country:
The NYPD, as of the publishing of this blog, has nearly 7,000 officers out sick, and well over 2,200 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s approximately 20% of its workforce not working and in quarantine. This is not unique to NYPD, many agencies are reporting a similar pattern too.
At another police department, leaders were upset when a medical doctor ordered a 911 operator to stay home from work (without a return date) because she is on immunosuppressants, undoubtedly putting her at high risk.
At another police department, one officer stayed home because his spouse is currently immunocompromised. Luckily for him, his agency recognized the potential danger and risk of him working in patrol, and they ordered the move. This move is just one example of leadership, knowing he puts her at risk because working patrol heightens the chances he could become a carrier.
Some agencies are slow to respond to this pandemic for fear of employees violating a policy. Agencies are not taking this pandemic seriously enough because they believe their employees will abuse their sick leave policy. So instead of responding appropriately to the crisis, they’re more worried about preventing employees from protecting themselves. Getting documentation can be difficult for some, especially during these times. Lots of doctors are diagnosing people over the phone if you have mild symptoms. Many doctors aren’t letting anyone come in to see them unless they are seriously ill because they are already overwhelmed. Due to the lack of available, timely testing materials, doctors in our regions are saving tests for the most ill or at-risk population. Per the CDC website, the first course of action when someone falls ill is to stay home.
The apathy demonstrated by some of our leaders is particularly appalling—the lack of empathy of not understanding their employees’ plight. Most police departments were already behind because they are short-staffed. The stress and anxiety were already high and it isn’t going to improve morale when leaders say their employees are calling “out scared” (a derogatory term for employees that aren’t sick when they call in sick). It creates a hostile environment, toxic culture, and encourages toxic masculinity instead of addressing the real issue.
Perhaps the most excellent show of leadership I’ve seen amongst my peers is this. At one agency, a third employee tested positive for COVID-19. After repeatedly asking for direction from the leaders in this organization (including a figurative no-show from his Chief), the sergeant of that team sent multiple officers home at one time because they were at risk, and he wasn’t taking any chances. One of those officers was in tears because he thought he was going to get the virus due to health issues. Too many employees are afraid to speak up, especially to management, for fear of retribution. For a pandemic of this magnitude, this lack of formal response to protect officers is UNACCEPTABLE!
Some departments are having their officers handle calls for service over the phone, and they only leave the station for high priority calls. Other approaches include citations in lieu of making arrests, restrictions of traffic enforcement and other proactive activities, handling report calls over the phone, and other measures minimizing officers from exposure (or having those who are asymptomatic from infecting others).
At another agency, management is using this time to figure out what calls NEED officers to respond to physically. Because a significant number of calls officers respond to are non-priority, tying them up unnecessarily places them at higher risk for exposure. Minimizing unnecessary contact should be the number #1 priority of all police departments.
Using an evidence-based mindset, one leader is flirting with the idea of detectives being flexible in working a 40 hour week in a 7-day cycle when the crimes they investigate were occurring while keeping a team for “on-call” or response purposes. The thought being freedom for the detectives to manage themselves would be innovative and cutting edge (considering people have different needs for a flexible schedule because of their kids or other commitments).
Fayetteville PD (NC) has resorted to their officers, civilians, and even the Chief herself, are making (sewing…literally) homemade masks. Because of the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), they decided they can’t wait for partnering agencies to provide the masks for them. Very innovative indeed, but it should not have to come to that. One agency in New Jersey has been making requests via social media almost daily for masks, gloves, sanitizers, and other cleaning products.
Simon Sinek says now is the time to implement change, especially in the face of business as usual. The adage of “we have always done it this way” is no longer an option and agencies are now forced to come up with new ideas…because the lives of our officers depend on it!
My friend and colleague, Wendy Stiver (Director of Research & Procedural Justice, Charleston Police Department, SC), summed it up perfectly, saying, “It’s our moral responsibility to do anything we can to prevent filling up the memorial wall with police COVID-19 victims. Sending officers out without PPE for COVID-19 and safety methods is equivalent to sending them out without a bulletproof vest.” Officers should also have the right in accordance with health guidelines to protect themselves and others by having the option to self-quarantine when they believe they are sick. Sworn and civilian law enforcement employees are not only catching the virus, but succumbing it. Without question, we will know someone personally and professionally who will come in contact with this virus when this is all over. Together, let’s make sure we do all that we can to protect our first responders and our communities. Let’s ensure we’re using science and research to inform our decisions.
If you work for a government agency and you’re looking for guidance on how to handle the COVID-19, we at the ASEBP have developed a portal, a one-stop-shop for all to share and compare policies and procedures for all things related to law enforcement’s response to COVID-19. It is: https://www.americansebpcovid.org/ You don’t have to be a member of ASEBP to participate in the portal. You just need a valid law enforcement email in order to create a login and password. This portal is open to international law enforcement agencies, not just U.S. law enforcement.
Dr. Magny is one of the co-founders and Executive Committee Member of the ASEBP where he is also the Editor-in-Chief of the monthly blog posts. He is a NIJ LEADS Scholar Alum, a Policing Fellow at the National Police Foundation, and police officer. He can be reached at: Email: email@example.com