Through the experiences and responses of law enforcement in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., certain key obstacles can be identified. The first major obstacle involves communication and collaborations. While public health departments lead the actual response to the pandemic, law enforcement agencies are expected to be “the voice of authority, calm, and guidance” (Brito et al. 2009, p.1). The police are often tasked with communicating voluntary measures, such as social distancing, and mandatory measures, such as quarantines and mandatory lockdowns, and the consequences for violations (Brito et al. 2009; Garcia 2020). For example, Phoenix PD officers were assigned to go to local businesses to explain the statewide orders and educate staff about safety measures (Garcia 2020). This may also involve communicating the value of compliance with these measures for the common good and reassuring frightened residents (Brito et al. 2009).
This messaging should be developed in collaboration with local hospitals and public health agencies to ensure consistency and up-to-date information (Barr 2020; Richards et al. 2006). To promote voluntary compliance with these public health measures, positive police-community relationships and public trust are imperative (Richards et al. 2006). In addition to contacts with individuals outside of the department, internal communication is also essential for disseminating consistent and timely information to personnel about personal health measures, public safety initiatives, and other relevant news to reduce confusion and potential risks to officers (Sanberg et al. 2010).
A second major obstacle for police agencies involves departmental resource management (financial, personnel, equipment, etc.). Although many police departments plan for public health emergency situations and train officers about pandemic responses (Barr 2020), many small police departments and sheriff’s offices were still underprepared for the vast effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (Bates 2020; Schuppe 2020). Even for agencies that did prepare, law enforcement resources can be quickly exhausted when dealing with the new responsibilities related to community health issues in addition to their routine service demands (Richards et al. 2006). The financial burden for agencies can be a major issue, as unforeseen costs for occupational health and safety programs, PPE and storage, liability, and other essential resources pile up (Brito et al. 2009; Sanberg et al. 2010).
During a pandemic like COVID-19, it is essential that law enforcement officers do not report to work while sick, as the virus could quickly spread through the department, and as a result, the community (Richards et al. 2006). That said, paid sick leave for department personnel is often limited and officers taking extra sick days as a precaution may not be feasible (Richards et al. 2006). As more officers are exposed, infected, or caring for sick loved ones, the overall workforce of law enforcement officers will be reduced (Bates 2020; Brito et al. 2009; Richards et al. 2006; Waldrop 2020). This could have been further exacerbated because, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, many departments did not have enough PPE and could not obtain a sufficient supply to protect their officers (NPF, 2020; Schuppe 2020). During the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most commonly depleted and desired PPE items included respirators, gowns, and eye protection (NPF, 2020).
Public Health Restrictions Enforcement
A third major obstacle for police agencies relates to the enforcement of public health orders. By early April 2020, the majority of the world had been placed on stay-at-home orders, whether voluntary or compulsory (Cave & Dahir 2020). Across the world, these orders vary in the activities that are prohibited and the penalties for citizen violations; some countries authorized their police to arrest and even shoot violators of the orders (Cave & Dahir 2020). Depending on the reach and severity of these orders, the measures may require law enforcement agencies to set up check-points and establish legal penalties for violations (Richards et al. 2006; Wilder-Smith & Freedman 2020). If the restrictions are voluntary, such as recommended social distancing, police may be limited in the way they can enforce the measures (Richards et al. 2006). Enforcement of social distancing can also increase the number of calls police departments receive due to reports of violations; even mundane activities, such as playing recreational sports in a park, may now initiate a police intervention (Schuppe 2020).
When these orders are being enforced by the police, one major question emerges: what specific measures should officers take when individuals violate mandatory measures, such as quarantines or travel restrictions? If officers are being instructed to limit police responses and avoid making arrests for misdemeanors, it can be challenging to simultaneously endorse increased police presence and response to enforce these orders. Although many agencies instructed officers to issue citations and fines, enforcement was largely inconsistent depending on the city or state of the agency (Mervosh, Lu, & Swales 2020). Furthermore, officers may feel uncomfortable coming in close contact with those who are breaking quarantine or social distancing restrictions (Rothstein 2015). For example, during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, law enforcement officers around the world without sufficient PPE and training on infection control were hesitant to engage with individuals who had violated quarantine out of concern for their own health (Rothstein 2015). These orders must be communicated effectively by local, state, and federal leaders, the police, and public health officials to ensure that enforcement is consistent to effect voluntary compliance.
Changes to Crime and Service Patterns
A final major obstacle for law enforcement involves changes to crime and service patterns with many members of the public engaging in social distancing, in isolation, or under quarantine. As more people stay at home, police officers are reassigned to more populated areas of the city, which may leave rural areas more vulnerable to crime (Felbab-Brown 2020). In many of the communities most-affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, 911 calls increased dramatically, but fewer of these calls needed to be diverted to the local police department (Waldrop 2020). In fact, amidst the panic and the stay-at-home order implementation, many police departments reported general crime and violence reductions, with some offense exceptions (Bates 2020; Hermann et al. 2020; Poston 2020; Waldrop 2020). For instance, possibly and partly due to the result of stay-at-home orders implemented in March 2020 and the increased personal and financial stress associated with the COVID-19 (and the public health measures), reports of assault and domestic violence increased in many cities (Kingkade 2020; Poston 2020). Given the potentially volatile and dangerous nature of domestic violence calls for officers, this increase may be cause for serious concern for police departments around the U.S. (Kingkade 2020) as the time period of the pandemic’s effects on law enforcement lengthens.