Policing During a Pandemic
As the COVID-19 crisis continues unabated, it has become increasingly clear that our first responders, especially our police, are playing a critical role. Typically charged with keeping public order, investigating acts of crime, and enforcing traffic laws, police across the country are now being asked to enforce social distancing mandates, including limiting or dispersing crowds, protecting hospitals and healthcare resources, and in some states flagging citizens entering or leaving their state.
Against the backdrop of these additional duties, police must confront another more serious threat—one that can overwhelm the ability of the police to do their job. Unlike healthcare workers, who use masks, gowns, and gloves to protect themselves from the virus, and who work with compliant people, police enjoy only limited personal protection from the virus and often encounter disorderly citizens who may be infected. The New York City Police Department, for example, currently has over 2,000 infected officers and even more in quarantine. In Detroit, over 20 percent of officers are currently quarantined. Police departments in Kentucky, where the virus has yet to fully impact the state, have also placed officers in quarantine and thus off-duty.
With increasing demands on law enforcement and diminishing resources, there may be a time when there are too few police officers to manage public safety and to enforce current and upcoming state mandates. Recognizing this, police departments have taken steps to reduce the risk of infection amongst officers by implementing their own version of medical triage. To reduce unnecessary contact with the public, for example, Louisville Metro Police announced they will no longer have officers complete traffic accident reports. Other departments, such as Cincinnati, Ohio’s, announced they will no longer send officers to misdemeanor incidents, including assaults. Still other departments have announced that they will send officers only to the most serious of criminal events. In short, many police departments have broadcast to the public that arrests will occur only for a very limited set of crimes, if at all.
Policing during a pandemic requires police departments to balance exposing their officers unnecessarily to the virus, and potentially taking them out of commission, against broader public safety priorities. However, is announcing to the public that arrests will no longer be made for a slew of crimes the best strategy? Will these announcements embolden criminals or abusive spouses, since they know they can easily get away with their crimes, or will this national tragedy bring out the better angels of our nature?
Unfortunately, social science offers little in the way of a definitive answer. Evidence seems to suggests that when people realize that laws are no longer being enforced that some will take advantage of criminal opportunities. For these individuals, hearing from the police that they will not be arrested is all but an invitation for bad behavior. The New York city Police Department, for example, reported an upsurge of 75% in burglaries of commercial businesses between March 12th, when a state of emergency was declared, and March 31st.
There is good news, however. Other evidence shows that social cooperation increases, not decreases, during times of emergency and that crime, too, tends to decrease overall. Even during a pandemic, most Kentucky citizens will remain law abiding and will band together to help each other remain safe, supported, and healthy. Some of these efforts may even be linked to knowledge that police are less available and less likely to make arrests. Nothing binds people together more than possible threats to their safety.
Only time will tell if police reductions in public safety efforts led to more or less crime. As the state continues to react to changing dynamics on the ground, however, leaders will have to remain vigilant about the capabilities of our police departments to respond to crime and to new state mandates. Fortunately, there is no evidence yet that Kentucky police departments are incapable of meeting these challenges.
Dr. John Wright is a professor of Criminal Justice at The University of Cincinnati and is a Senior Fellow at Pegasus Institute