‘Social Distancing’ and Cops: The New Challenge for American Policing

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Police officer, Los Angeles. Photo by fourbyfour blazer via Flickr

Could “social-distancing” practices adapted by police to protect themselves and the public from infection during the pandemic lead to long-term changes in American law enforcement?

Policing experts at a webinar organized  by the Vera Institute for Justice Tuesday suggested that some of the changes already underway, such as curtailing arrests for minor crimes and developing closer collaboration with community mental health providers to divert justice-involved individuals from jail, are changing the template of traditional police work.

“What we’re looking at is a co-production in public safety,” said Charlottesville, Va., police chief RaShall Brackney.

According to Brackney, officers in her agency were collaborating with public defenders, mental health providers, and probation and parole  officers in developing procedures to replace most types of physical contact with consultation by email or other forms of communication.

RaShall Brackney

RaShall Brackney

“There are great opportunities for the policing profession,” she said.

The underlying challenge sparked by the COVID-19 crisis was finding ways to reinforce the connection between policing and public health without increasing the risk to officers and the public, said Brandon del Pozo, former chief of the Burlington, Vt., police department.

“[As police,] we  take pride in the fact that we come into contact with some of the most dangerous people in society, but now we have to balance custodial arrests against the risk of spreading the virus,” he said.

“Contact is dangerous (and) we have a reckoning with COVID about how much contact we can have with people.”

Many of the reforms to policing often touted by experts involve reducing arrests and developing partnerships with other community-based services, so the current health crisis might in fact move such reforms further along the road, the webinar was told.

One factor fueling the change is the toll the disease is taking on police themselves. Hundreds of officers around the country have been infected.

“It’s really hitting us hard,” said Maj. Darren Ivey of the Kansas City, Mo., police department.

Ivey said stress and anxiety about the disease—and particularly, police officers’ fear of passing it on to their families—had made “officer wellness” a top priority of his agency.

“It’s not just fear of exposure—it’s exhaustion,” he said. ”One of our officers is on the 13th (straight) day of duty. That really wears on your system.”

Ron Bruno, executive director of CIT International, an organization that develops training programs for crisis intervention teams, said a recent survey of law enforcement and other first responders showed rising feelings of “insecurity.”

So far, most types of crime have declined since the pandemic began. But as the disease continues to spread, growing stress among the public could lead to increased violence—heightening the risk to police, he warned.

Shortages of personal protective equipment like masks for first responders have added to the tension.

Creative Applications of Technology

Many of the new practices adopted by law enforcement since the crisis began involve deploying technology in creative ways.

In Charlottesville, for example, police dispatchers divert calls relating to non-violence incidents to an officer who can handle them online or refer them to a service provider—rather than dispatch an officer to the scene.

Traffic stops in all but the most serious cases are handled at a distance, with officers taking a photo of a driver’s license. Even traditional roll calls are now handled virtually, with officers checking in by telephone or teleconference.

Changing the interaction between police and the public is  designed to “balance public safety with public health,”  Brackney said.

Charlottesville police now participate in a program organized by the Society of Black Mental Health Professionals that takes into account the fact that a disproportional number of individuals sickened by coronavirus are African Americans living in at-risk  neighborhoods—who are especially vulnerable because of poor housing or poor health.

Officers carry a “stress relief kit” which includes masks and hand sanitizer.

One benefit of the new “social distancing” mandates: Police are put into fewer situations that could lead to conflict.

Brandon del Pozo

Former Burlington Vt Police Chief Brandon del Pozo (far right) makes a point during a recent John Jay College conference. Photo by The Crime Report.

Individuals apprehended for misdemeanors, like disturbing the peace, are more likely to be given citations than hauled into the local police precinct for booking.

“Flattening the curve” is not just about reducing the number of infections—but reducing the rate at which people are exposed to the risk, del Pozo pointed out.

“And that is determined by physical contact.”

Over the past decade, police have been at the sharp end of calls for dramatic changes, and many have resisted the idea that law enforcement has a “social worker” dimension.

But COVID-19 has already changed many rank-and-file officers’ perceptions of their vulnerability—not to mention their role in protecting public safety during a health crisis.

“We do have to think in terms of different concepts [of policing],” said Brackney.

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.

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