Police responses to COVID-19

From delaying noncritical arrests to monitoring officer health, here's how agencies nationwide are responding during the COVID-19 pandemic


Reprinted with permission from the Brennan Center for Justice

As communities across the country are struggling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, police departments are being asked to rise to the challenge of helping to promote community health and safety while maintaining law and order.

As part of these efforts, police departments and local prosecutors are making needed policy changes to reduce the number of people who become involved with the criminal justice system.

In this March 26, 2020, file photo, a Chicago police officer notifies a cyclist that the trails in Promontory Park, along Lake Michigan, are closed in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
In this March 26, 2020, file photo, a Chicago police officer notifies a cyclist that the trails in Promontory Park, along Lake Michigan, are closed in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Increasing patrol, community support

As cities began to shelter-in-place this month, many police departments of various sizes have turned their focus to solving their communities’ immediate needs, including by responding to high anxiety with increased neighborhood foot patrols and by supporting local businesses.

  • In Los Angeles, the police department is deploying half of the detectives to “high-visibility patrols” aimed at reassuring an anxious public as some businesses close and grocery stores attract long lines.
  • The Fairfield Police Department in Fairfield, Connecticut, launched a social media campaign called "Law and Order to Go," which highlights and encourages police to order lunch for curbside pickup from Fairfield restaurants, promoting small businesses that are still open and offering delivery.  
  • Since Friday, March 20, the Fort Worth Police Officers Association has been supporting local businesses by purchasing hundreds of bulk meals daily for police officers in every patrol division.
  • Bridgeport police are now asking for nonviolent, traffic, and civil reports to be made online to reduce law enforcement interaction so that police can shift focus to assaults and theft in businesses as panic-buying increases.

Issuing warnings, summons in lieu of arrest

Police should issue warnings whenever possible. In the case of more severe infractions, police should issue a summons or a ticket in lieu of making an arrest absent an immediate threat to public safety.

Since the beginning of March, at least eight police departments have adopted strategies to reduce arrests: Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Denver, Miami, and Rockford.

  • The Police Department of the San Francisco Bay Area has taken an “education over enforcement” approach, preferring to warn people rather than to arrest them.
  • In Chicago, the police department directed officers that certain low-level and nonviolent crimes can be handled via citation and misdemeanor summons as opposed to physical arrest.
  • Philadelphia and Chicago are some of larger cities where parking officials will not issue tickets unless there’s a public safety risk, such as a blocked fire hydrant or intersection.
  • Fort Worth, Denver, and Philadelphia are some of the cities where police are reducing arrests for low-level crimes, such as burglaries and drug offenses. Suspects are being released with a warrant ordering them to return for processing once the crisis is over.
  • In Illinois, Rockford police officers were told to issue a "notice to appear" and not perform a custodial arrest for misdemeanor crimes.
  • In Montana, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin has asked local law enforcement to cite-and-release individuals for nonviolent misdemeanors to prevent the entrance of Covid-19 into the jails.

Delaying or halting noncritical arrests

Planned, or scheduled, arrests should be delayed if at all possible unless the person to be arrested poses an immediate threat to public safety.

As of Monday, March 23, a handful of law enforcement agencies have delayed or halted noncritical arrests and evictions that do not pose an immediate threat to public safety.

  • Arizona’s Tucson police officers were ordered to cite and release as frequently as possible, use the long-form process for nonviolent felonies, and not serve misdemeanor warrants unless for public safety reasons, such as domestic abuse.
  • Commissioner Danielle Outlaw of the Philadelphia Police Department informed commanders that officers are to delay arrests in crimes ranging from narcotics to theft to prostitution.  
  • To decrease the jail population, the Washington, D.C., police department’s use of citation-and- release has been expanded to a number of other crimes.  
  • The DeKalb County Marshal's Office in Atlanta is following its continuity of operations plan developed years ago for a pandemic. On March 17, the marshal ordered staff to suspend all evictions and noncritical field operations, such as civil process delivery and warrant apprehensions.

providing PPE, medical checks for officers

Police departments should provide their officers and staff with training and appropriate protective gear, in accordance with public health recommendations, when on duty. This also ensures that they minimize any health risk to those they interact with.

As of March, police departments have widely implemented social distancing practices and numerous check-ins on physical and mental health.

  • The Lyndhurst Police Department in New Jersey said that officers who have to make in-person visits will keep a "safe distance" and refrain from shaking hands.
  • The Los Angeles Police Department has stated that all patrol officers and officers likely to come into contact with the virus have been issued a kit consisting of multiple sets of gloves, a bacteria protection mask, and goggles.  
  • The Miami Police Department set up screening stations at all its police districts. Employees must pass through the screening stations before coming to work, and employees are issued a colored wristband to show that they've been cleared.  
  • The Chicago Police Department is keeping its medical office open 24 hours a day, rather than the usual 8 hours a day, to better track the health of its officers.  
  • Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best worked with medical experts and partners at the Seattle Fire Department to certify their EMTs and medics to administer the testing procedures for Covid-19 in their own Seattle First Responder testing site. This was in response to protecting its employees who constantly risk exposure while putting public safety first in their jobs. It is also preventative, as they would find anyone affected quickly and remove them from active duty to stop spreading of the virus.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has put together a centralized clearinghouse of resources related to Covid-19 that is updated constantly. Resources available include fact sheets, organizational readiness documents, policy considerations, and much more.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has put together a resources page for law enforcement that provides how agencies are responding, PERF Daily COVID-19 Reports, PERF publications on outbreaks, federal and international resources, and officer wellness resources.

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