Worldwide more than 16.5 million people have contracted COVID-19 and more than 654,000 persons have perished as of July 28, 2020. By the same date in the United States, 4.3 million were sick with the virus, while 148,000 have died.
COVID-19 has induced negative effects globally across industries, governments, non-governmental organizations and non-profit entities, among others. As the gravity of COVID-19 was recognized and expanded in the United States, we commenced a research project to gauge the impact of the pandemic on law enforcement agencies. Our study began with a survey of more than 200 Illinois police departments during June 2020. The survey results indicate that COVID-19 has significantly affected both the internal and external operations of Illinois police departments. These ramifications are particularly profound as they relate to safety measures and risk mitigation strategies implemented to protect police personnel and the public they serve.
Ninety-four percent of respondents said new safety measures have been deployed including measures such as: the distribution of personal protection equipment (PPE), new methodologies to interact with the public, social distancing, encouraging hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, frequent sanitizing of squad cars and cleaning police stations. Despite the nearly universal (94 percent) reporting of the use of new safety procedures, only 75 percent of respondents believed their departments had an increased interest for their physical and emotional wellness. There appears to be some dissonance between these two responses as one might anticipate that adoption of enhanced safety protocols would positively influence employee perceptions regarding employer concern. These somewhat inconsistent answers were proffered because, apparently, some employees perceive that their superiors are not especially worried about their health and welfare, despite the fact they acknowledged that safety measures have been taken on their behalf.
Not surprising, 58 percent of participants perceive that they were at greater risk than before the pandemic. In addition to traditional law enforcement officer safety concerns, for example, the potential for violent encounters, COVID-19 has added another layer of risk. Anxiety regarding disease transmission from the public or during other workplace interactions, and the practical requirements of social distancing, could reduce efficiency and effectiveness of policing to some degree. After all, operational activities used before the pandemic were not restricted by social distancing. Given the characteristics of the virus reported to public health authorities, transmission may arise from both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, more so with those unmasked and unable to socially distance. Still, the ability of public health officials to share with police information about individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 aids police in taking a more secure posture with such individuals.
Tragically, for instance, in late May 2020, 526 Chicago Police Department officers tested positive for COVID-19, 347 of whom have recovered and returned to work, while three of their colleagues died. The Fraternal Order of Police reported that nationally 139 police officers have died from COVID-19, including 10 in Illinois by July 21, 2020. Personnel at police departments of all sizes are at risk to pandemic caused illness. Small sized departments are notably vulnerable if multiple members fall ill, must be quarantined, or pass away.
Eighty-three percent of police noted they reduced public access to their facilities. A similar percentage lowered their use of community policing activities. Accordingly, community policing services were reduced by more than 80 percent of the departments surveyed. As crime often goes unreported – as demonstrated by often large disparities between reported crimes and crime victim surveys – the importance of community policing to capture this gap is crucial. Against this backdrop, access to police departments has declined so that physical accessibility and connection by the public to police has dropped. Also, less community policing means that the police’s understanding of the communities they serve is diminished. As such, reduced knowledge of criminal activity and other developments in the neighborhoods will likely take root.
A smaller police footprint may engender incipient hostility towards police or less so, depending on police-community relations. In addition, suspension of citizen ride-alongs and citizen academies as well as the elimination of in-person police-community forums undermine police-citizen cohesion. Leveraging virtual forums, conference calls and outreach to community leaders in the non-physical world can bridge the limitations on street-level, (physical) community links caused by the pandemic.
Reductions in enforcement actions and in-person responses to calls for service were found among 78 percent and 76 percent of respondents, respectively. In combination, these declines raise questions regarding the needs of the public being met to the same standard they were prior to COVID-19. New types of enforcement actions relating to face covering orders, shelter in place orders and policing newly-designated essential and non-essential businesses are among the roles that were absent before this health crisis. In so doing, law enforcement has been placed in an unenviable role of having to enforce pandemic-related rules that are opposed by some vocal constituencies. Interestingly, while facial covering has been encouraged to reduce transmission of the virus, they have been used by criminals to hide their identities.
Concomitantly, arrests, traffic stops and investigatory stops have largely declined nationally. Impediments to traditional policing precipitated by COVID-19 are likely to endure until the disease spread has decelerated. Gun violence, murder, domestic violence and robberies have surged in some large cities during the pandemic. Tangentially pandemic-connected crimes (e.g., aggravated assaults, stabbings and murders of individuals enforcing the use of face coverings or those opposed to face masks) have tragically emerged nationwide. The further fracturing of segments of US society in recent months have also bore witness to a variety of criminal conduct: hate crimes, vehicle attacks, arson and damage to public and private property by individuals of all walks of life. Law enforcement must contend with these new stressors as well.
Next, the survey found that 82 percent of police agencies suspended their police academies and in-service training activities. Stopping the flow of new recruits delays the replacement of those who retire, resign, or fall ill. The elimination of in-service training weakens the capabilities and knowledge of existing officers. The need to introduce enhanced police training, especially in light of challenges emerging from the pandemic and protests, is paramount now. Issues ranging from responding to protests, de-escalation techniques, community policing and diversity training appear warranted. Also, the opportunity to assess possible new approaches to policing might be delayed until the virus dissipates.
Likewise, 80 percent of departments stated they modified their roll call procedures due to COVID-19. Whether such changes to roll call practices hinder information sharing, cohesion within departments, and police effectiveness remains to be seen. Other operational findings included that 68 percent of agencies modified personnel scheduling. Depending on the circumstances, officers were tasked to work remotely and separately. Here too, what impact will these adjustments have in terms of productivity, efficacy, teamwork and information sharing within departments during this pandemic? Sixty-two percent of departments expressed they limited staff access to specific police facilities. What are the consequences on police operations from this reduced physical proximity among colleagues?
As elsewhere within the US labor market, 30 percent of police departments stated they furloughed or reduced staffing due to COVID-19. These pressures on personnel may result in staff shortages and declining morale. Even prior to the pandemic, the law enforcement profession was experiencing well-documented difficulties recruiting new officers and lateral hires. Budgetary pressures arising from reduced state and local tax revenues due to lessened business activity during the pandemic will put additional strains on funding new entrants to police departments. Also, the emergence of calls to categorically defund the police or to otherwise reduce police budgets going forward introduces unprecedented fiscal uncertainty with likely negative repercussions on the overall recruiting and staffing environment.
The realities of social distancing are also a substantial potential source of individual officer stress. Some members of the public are likely to be on edge due to the consequences of the novel coronavirus. For instance, selected community members have been mostly confined to their homes for weeks or months. Others may have experienced job losses, reduced income, modified their living conditions and added pressures in their familial settings and social networks. The increasingly acerbic political climate emanating from the pandemic include tensions over: stay-at-home orders, closure or restrictions on non-essential businesses, and different perspectives on the benefits (or mandates) of face coverings and social distancing, changes in work conditions and calls for school and university openings. All these variables, coupled with protests and anti-police sentiments hastened by the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans by police, make policing particularly challenging at this point.
In sum, this study shows that during June 2020 the consequences of COVID-19 on Illinois law enforcement were significant. How long these changes in protocols and viewpoints of police will endure depend on the potency and length of the pandemic. Too, some modifications to policing implemented during the pandemic (e.g., reduced access by the public to department facilities and leveraging technologies) may continue as they might be recognized as improving safety and increasing efficiency in police practices. Continued community engagement during the pandemic – although stymied by operational changes and health risks – is critical as it affords law enforcement to better serve their constituencies. The upsurge in COVID-19 cases nationally during the third week of July 2020 portends that the perils and uncertainty that face police in Illinois and elsewhere will endure for the foreseeable future.