Thousands more have been infected with the virus.
Policymakers in many states have acted quickly to implement policies aimed at stopping the spread of the virus in jails and prisons, but more attention must be paid to the health and safety of correctional staff and officers who are keeping us safe during this pandemic.
By the nature of their profession, law enforcement personnel cannot adhere to the stay-at-home orders or social distancing recommendations. Police officers can’t serve and protect from home. They are away from the security of their homes and families—keeping us safe by solving crimes, educating residents and, in some cases, delivering essential items to people in the community.
Indeed, at a time when much of the world has come to a complete stop, they are standing on the thin blue line in order to keep us safe.
Likewise, correctional officers provide an essential service by guarding facilities and promoting rehabilitation among the sentenced population. This means that officers are almost surely exposed to the virus, because jails and prisons are especially susceptible to the rapid spread of disease due to crowded conditions, poor access to healthcare for incarcerated individuals, and a lack of testing.
These conditions not only endanger incarcerated individuals, but also heighten the possibility that law enforcement and corrections officers will become infected. We have already witnessed the virus spreading through a U.S. facility. The Marion Correctional Institution, a state prison in Ohio, reported an 80 percent positive test rate among its incarcerated individuals.
Lessons from the past suggest that times of crisis are particularly hard on law enforcement personnel. Research shows that difficult times such as this can harm their mental health: After 9/11, suicide rates for police officers went up and countless others dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Correctional officers are also at high risk for depression, PTSD, and suicide as they deal with extremely stressful circumstances on a daily basis. Though 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic are very different crises, it is imperative that we make sure the mental health of our police and correctional officers is prioritized.
Fortunately, several policymakers have recognized this problem. Seattle has contracted with certain hotels to provide rooms for officers to decompress after their shifts. The rooms are also available to officers that need to stay away from home to keep their families safe. Additionally, correctional officers in Alaska have access to alternative housing during the pandemic if they have been exposed to the virus.
In addition to housing for personnel, psychologists need to be widely available for both police and correctional officers to speak with online or over the phone in order to promote mental wellness—a necessity at all times, but even more so during a pandemic where anxiety is high.
Jurisdictions are also arresting fewer people and screening calls to determine if they need an in-person response. This has helped to reduce law enforcement personnel’s contact with people and to deter facility spread.
Again, Seattle is leading by example. Before sending officers to a location, dispatchers ask three health-related questions, and officers are given personal protective equipment (PPE) if there are any COVID-19 symptoms.
It is also crucial to keep jail populations down at this time. As such, police need to take available diversion and deflection programs more seriously. They should follow Philadelphia’s and Los Angeles’ lead, where police are no longer arresting for certain nonviolent and misdemeanor offenses.
Rather, when prudent, officers should use “cite and release” measures for low-level offenses, which will have the dual benefit of reducing jailed populations and reducing the time officers interact with others, helping to keep them virus-free.
Police chiefs and local sheriffs in charge of corrections need to be proactive and creative to keep law enforcement personnel and the public safe during this pandemic.
As they risk their lives daily, we must call on our leaders to ensure their safety now so that they are here to protect us later.
Arthur Rizer (@arthurrizer) is the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy Director at the R Street Institute. A former police officer and federal prosecutor, he is also an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University. Krystin Roehl is a researcher and independent contractor with R Street.