In late March, New York City reported the first active-duty police officer death related to COVID-19. And last week the New York Times reported on the changing role of law enforcement now, with a focus on the hundreds of NYPD officers pulled from their prior duties and tasked with making sure the rules around social distancing are followed—things like crowds in grocery stores.
And in cities where police departments already struggle to maintain appropriate staffing levels, the COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call to understanding a new reality, said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF), in a recent Baltimore Sun editorial. Johnson, who served as Deputy Police Commissioner during my 2015-2018 tenure as Baltimore Police Commissioner, sat down with Armored Things recently to discuss how law enforcement agencies across the nation are coping with the pandemic.
- NYPD has police officers acting, in essence, like health and safety officers. Good idea? Yes, it’s a good idea. NYPD is fortunate, as a big city police department, to have those resources. It makes sense to have certain officers on these tasks, so the police response is consistent and proportional across the city.
- Are American police chiefs doing enough to prepare for this crisis? I think many law enforcement agencies have, in the last couple of weeks, made some pretty big strides. Generally speaking, I think many agencies were very slow to respond. Law enforcement leaders, similar to leaders in other fields, aren’t public health experts, aren’t epidemiologists, and they don’t have them on their staffs. I can tell you that it’s a conversation that probably no big city police chief has had in the past—about how they’re going to respond to a global pandemic. They don’t know what N95 masks are. They don’t know the difference between airborne and a droplet. That’s not part of their lingo, or in their daily reality. They respond to crime, threats and to some extent, terrorism. In parts of the country where natural disasters are more common, like hurricanes and earthquakes, they’re very conversant on how emergency management works. But ‘pandemic’ is not something that’s part of their lexicon.
- And what should they be doing now? In Miami, that city’s police department was the first I saw starting to take the temperatures of officers when they reported to work. You couldn’t enter the building until you had your temperature taken. Many other agencies now are doing that. They’re sanitizing their equipment in ways that they had not in the past. I read something just this morning about a police department in the Midwest—they have the luxury of doing this and not everyone does—but they put their officers on a 5-on/15-off rotation. They work five 12- hour shifts and then they get 15 days off, which is ingenious. During those 15 days, if they’ve been exposed, they’ll become symptomatic or otherwise test positive. I’m not an epidemiologist, but that seems like a great way to prevent spread. So, what should they be doing? I think innovating things like that. And this is all putting together the aircraft in mid-air—because this isn’t something that anyone in the police community took seriously or planned for. Hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have, but they didn’t. Priorities are always in competition with one another.
- We talked about New York City and nearly 7,000 cops out sick, in quarantine, or with COVID. What else can a police chief do right now to prepare for this worst-case scenario? I’d look to recently retired or otherwise recently separated officers in good standing. They can be brought back with a minimum sort of lift. You can’t bring someone off the street and train them to be a police officer. It takes about a year to do that. And most cities are challenged doing that anyway. But you can get officers that have retired in the last three years or so, give them a sort of a re-indoctrination into the profession and get them re-equipped and sworn in. To get them back in the fold, so to speak, it would be critical. In a place like Baltimore, they’re so short already. It’s impossible to fill the void any other way. The national guard can’t do it; a neighboring jurisdiction can’t do it. You have to stay within your family. And the only way to do that is going to be recently retired or otherwise separated officers. That’s something that they’ve done in the UK, trying to bring back retired law enforcement. The health professions are doing it. So, it just makes sense.
- How does this crisis compare to the other challenging moments that you’ve navigated in your career? I think it’s much more difficult. It’s much more challenging and complex. There are two real reasons for that. One, it’s a long-duration challenge. The D.C. sniper situation was a big challenge for law enforcement. And everything that happened in the immediate wake of 9-11. And in Baltimore, the 2015 riots. But most of those challenges were very short lived. They have got to be buckled in for the long haul and this one; they’re already been dealing with it for over a month and it’s, there’s really no end in sight. And the other thing that makes this particularly challenging is that it’s outside of the lexicon of police leaders. Very few police officers, let alone police executives, have any training in providing healthcare or in epidemiology or public health. They don’t know the difference between a virus and bacteria. They don’t understand how the protective equipment works. They’re learning.
- Do you foresee changes in the way police officers perform their jobs in the future because of this crisis? And do you think technology can play a role? Not only in policing, but in every field, I think people are starting to learn that there are more efficient ways to get work done, that don’t require a daily commute and sometimes don’t require an in-person meeting. And technology does obviously play a role there. It enables us to have substitutes for in-person meetings and other close personal contact. But I don’t think there’s going be a long-term change fundamentally, to the meat and potatoes of daily policing. I think it’s going to stay the same. We interact in close proximity with people, and often people in crisis. More and better personal protection equipment, however, will be introduced to police.
- Which law enforcement think tank do you see taking the lead right now? The National Police Foundation put together a dashboard. It’s basically to keep police leaders up to date—statistics and hotspots, levels of infection, fatalities, levels of police officers infected by state and equipment needs. It’s a real-time dashboard on what is needed for real-time intelligence purposes. And it’s very easy to understand, very visual, and they just go to right to that. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) are also compiling and distributing valuable information daily to police chiefs across the nation.
- What do you think will be the single biggest criticism of the way our police departments operated pre-COVID crisis? I think it would be a lack of preparedness for even things that are unlikely to happen. Firefighters are trained to be ready for whatever happens. Cops are more geared toward this [mindset]: ‘I’m going to figure out what I think is most likely to happen and I’ll put all my eggs in that basket.’ It’s the nature of our profession. I think that law enforcement can learn from the fire service. They’re pretty good at being ready no matter what. And cops aren’t wired like that.
- Most of America’s police departments are much smaller than the ones that dominate the news headlines. Is coping with COVID-19 harder for them? Yes, in many ways. Because they often lack the resources that give larger departments flexibility to adjust during a crisis. They have to look for new resources. Chief Amal Awad of the Hyattsville Police Department (just outside of Washington, D.C.) is partnering with a military research and development company to decontaminate police cars and equipment in new ways—to protect her officers and their families.
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