Posted 3/17/20


Crime-fighters confront the challenges of coronavirus


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. What risks does the pandemic pose to effective policing? To the administration of justice? How are police and other components of the criminal justice system responding? How should they respond? And last but not least, is the crisis being used to advance pre-existing agendas?

     Police work brings officers into frequent, close contact with colleagues and citizens. Routine interactions are close and personal, and the intimacy skyrockets during an arrest. When officers are called on to provide a service, it’s not as though they can postpone or defer a response. Neither is their work only about crime. As Sunnyvale (Calif.) officers fought to revive an elderly man, they didn’t know he had been exposed to the virus. And when they were told, they didn’t stop. In the end, five cops and two paramedics wound up in quarantine. (Fortunately, their patient turned out not to be infected.) Similar situations are popping up throughout the U.S. For example, in Los Angeles, where three deputies and five firefighters were recently quarantined.

     In Kirkland, Washington the circumstances were far grimmer. An adult nursing facility that was placing an unusually large volume of emergency medical calls became the “epicenter” of America’s coronavirus outbreak. At least ten residents and former residents have died from the infection, and seven visitors (one from North Carolina) came down with the virus. Three police officers and thirty-one firefighters – twenty-five percent of the fire department – wound up in quarantine or isolation; eighteen were symptomatic.

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     According to the Centers for Disease Control the main route of transmission is via virus-laden droplets infected persons expel when they cough or sneeze. Should these land on someone’s mouth or nose they can be aspirated and set off an infection. However, the “good news” is that droplets bearing the virus are relatively heavy and fall to the ground within six feet. Transmission by touching an object or surface on which droplets landed or were deposited, then transferring the virus to oneself by touching the eyes or nose, is thought possible but much less likely.

     CDC’s guidance for law enforcement officers emphasizes that the danger zone is six feet. Regular hand washing is important, as is not touching one’s face “with unwashed hands.” Beyond that, the CDC urges that officers use specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever contacting persons believed to be infected. Here’s what’s needed:

  • Disposable examination gloves
  • Disposable isolation gown or single-use/disposable coveralls (if unable to wear a disposable gown or coveralls because it limits access to duty belt and gear, ensure duty belt and gear are disinfected after contact with individual)
  • NIOSH-approved particulate respirator (i.e., N-95 or higher-level. Facemasks are an acceptable alternative until the supply chain is restored)
  • Eye protection (i.e., goggles or disposable face shield that fully covers the front and sides of the face)

     Officers are counseled to disinfect their duty belt and other gear with spray or wipes after making any arrest that involves “close contact.” They are also advised to launder (but not shake) their clothing. These admonitions aside, the CDC’s assessment is that “for law enforcement personnel performing daily routine activities, the immediate health risk is considered low.”

     Well, that may be so. Alas, even when dispatched, officers typically know nothing about the physical condition of those with whom they might interact on scene. And when they arrive, there is usually little time or opportunity to gather that information. So a few steps seem prudent:

  • Require that officers who encounter persons in need of medical assistance don googles and a face mask before they step in to help
  • Regardless of the nature of an incident, require that call-takers inquire whether someone with a communicable disease is present and relay the response to dispatchers so they can pass it on
  • Insure that pertinent medical information is entered into the dispatch database to forewarn officers who handle future calls involving the same persons or locations

Incidentally, we emphasize the role of dispatchers and databases because of their centrality to safe and effective patrol operations. (For more about that check out “A Matter of Life and Death”).

     Of course, it’s not just about officers. It’s also about organizations. “If we lose 40 percent of our force, what would police service look like?” Considering what happened in Sunnyvale and Kirkland, that concern, voiced by a Portland Deputy Chief Chris Davis, is hardly far-fetched. During these uncertain, stressful times, having a full complement of officers on hand is a paramount concern. To help keep the peace at besieged retail stores, LAPD and the L.A.S.D. are putting “more boots on the ground” and shifting detectives to patrol.  But police departments are staffed by people, and people get sick. How should agencies prepare for the personnel shortages that coronavirus will inevitably bring? Steps recommended by the IACP include pooling resources with neighboring communities, canceling vacations, extending shifts and placing off-duty officers on call. Calling in reservists and even retirees are also options.

     Well enough. But the chiefs offer one more recommendation, and it’s somewhat jarring. Agencies are advised to evaluate “what services require an on-scene police presence versus those that can be handled by alternative means such as by phone or online.” In other words, to consider rationing.

     To be sure, what cops do and why can always stand reassessment. That seems particularly apropos when an epidemic’s afoot. Consider what recently befell Miami PD’s motorcycle squad. It’s on quarantine after Brazil’s president, for whom its officers provided security (and with whom they mingled) was diagnosed with the virus. Substantially easing the burden on field resources, though, calls for a lot more than banning motorcades or, another Miami example, not serving eviction notices. But withholding flesh-and-blood cops from calls that have been classified as less pressing is not without major risk. There would certainly be “errors in call classification,” perhaps more than a few with grave consequences. And even if nothing bad happens, the deterrence and reassurance benefits of a uniformed police presence would be lost. Natch, these effects would fall most heavily on the long-suffering residents of the high-crime neighborhoods that typically generate the most service requests.

     Still, in the “real world” some retrenchment may be called for. Initiatives to limit who comes into the system are exploding in popularity. Courts throughout the U.S. are postponing trials, arraignments and such. Jails and prisons are responding with lockdowns, no visiting allowed. What else can be done? How about the cops? After all, they’re the ones who kick off the mess by making arrests. Collin County (Texas) Sheriff Jim Skinner fears that arrestees might waltz in with a lethal present, then spread it through his jail. So he’s urged local police to forego taking non-violent criminals into custody: “Would you arrest if you and your staff had to take custody and care for the person? You may decide that an arrest isn’t necessary to protect public safety.” A local small-town chief agreed: “We do not believe his request is unreasonable given the current situation.”

     Sheriff Skinner has plenty of big-time company. Los Angeles County, for example, has used cite-and-release and early release to reduce its jail population by six-hundred inmates. Meanwhile arrests have reportedly dropped from three-hundred a day to sixty. That’s a full eighty percent. Colorado, though, seems an exception. To keep jails and prisons humming as usual it’s making major efforts to keep physical spaces disinfected and to screen new and current inmates for the virus. Actually, screening persons about to be released can greatly benefit the community. Unfortunately, this is a very imperfect world. Our decentralized criminal justice system, which reflects our decentralized political system, doesn’t turn on a dime. Jails and prisons may not be able to round up enough “dimes” to test everyone. So for crimes that are really non-violent – say, drunken driving, shoplifting or petty theft – cite-and-release seems an appealing option.

     Yes, mistakes in identifying arrestees who pose a threat to society will happen, and we know the communities that would bear the heaviest load (hint: it’s not nine-oh-two-one-oh.)* So it’s crucial that adjustments made during the pandemic be considered as temporary. Yet some are already pouncing on the chaos to advance their agendas. In a long, nicely crafted opinion piece in the New York Times, staff writer Emily Bazelon approvingly mentions King County D.A. Dan Satterberg’s decision to file “only serious violent cases” because of the pandemic. That police have long criticized D.A. Satterberg for being too easy on offenders isn’t mentioned. Instead, Ms. Bazelon uses his move to support her view that our present crisis provides “an opportunity to rethink how the system treats low-level offenses”:

    It also makes sense to stop arresting and incarcerating people for technical — that is, noncriminal — violations of parole and probation. About 4.5 million people live under court supervision around the country. In 2017, they made up 25 percent of new admissions to state prisons, not because they committed new crimes, but for infractions like missed curfew or unauthorized travel. This practice often makes little sense in terms of public safety; it is particularly hard to justify now.

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     Ms. Bazelon’s opinions are not uncommon among well-meaning observers who haven’t labored in the system’s trenches. But when The Crime Report breathlessly announces that similar sentiments have been expressed by America’s “top probation and parole executives,” one need pay attention. In an open letter that warns of the risk posed by the many arrestees “churning” between jails and home, “Exit: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole” urges major reductions in the number of persons placed under supervision, a “drastic” curtailment of arrests for “technical” violations, and a large increase in early releases. Indeed, as NBC reports, the Covid-19 threat has led to such easings throughout the U.S. “Exit,” though, has long pushed for parole and probation systems that are “smaller, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable, and restorative.” So it’s hardly an impartial observer.

     There are also good reasons for acting against “technical” probation and parole violators. Really, minor, isolated breaches land no one in jail. Supervision caseloads, though, invariably include miscreants who are out of control but have not yet been arrested for another crime. A P.O.’s ability to meaningfully sanction problem clients for “technical” violations is an invaluable tool. It’s the bedrock on which probation and parole rest. If only an arrest for a crime will do, where’s the deterrent value? Why place anyone under supervision?

     And that was our final point: crises can make for lousy precedent. But rest assured, we’ll be keeping an eye on things. In the meantime don’t forget: six feet!

* ZIP Code for Beverly Hills

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Fair But Firm     Must the Door Revolve?     A Matter of Life and Death


Police    Enforcing compliance with restrictions     Crime, courts, jails, corrections      Resources and fraud

Police operations

4/6/20  Nashville police are handling non-emergency, non-violent situations by phone. That can range from minor, no-injury vehicle crashes to vandalism, shoplifting and thefts from vehicles and stores, when there’s no suspect or “recoverable evidence” on scene and losses are less than $5,000.

4/5/20  How are police handling routine traffic stops? In Norman, Oklahoma officers take pictures with their cell phones as drivers hold up their driver licenses and vehicle registrations to the window. If something’s amiss and more intimate contact is needed they call for backup and put on a mask.

4/3/20 So far, thirty-five LAPD officers (about one-third of one percent of the force) have tested positive. LAPD officers will begin wearing masks. Their temperature is being taken as they report to work, and social distancing is being used during roll-calls. To boost its patrol force LAPD officers are on twelve-hour shifts. Officers are also at public shelters the city opened to serve the homeless during the crisis.

4/2/20 In New York City, the center of the U.S. pandemic, about 1,400 police officers (nearly four percent of the sworn force) and at least eighty-eight civilians have tested COVID-19 positive. NYPD also reported its first COVID-19 death, Detective Cedric Dixon, a 22-year veteran.

3/30/20  Chicago, with forty-nine officers (about one-half percent of the force) recuperating from coronavirus, attributes its relative “few” numbers to scheduling those who work inside so they have less close contact with others.

3/29/20 Kristen Ziman, chief of police in Aurora, Illinois, a Chicago suburb of about 200,000 population, thinks she picked up the coronavirus while meeting with other officials to plan the city’s response. She and the mayor, who is also infected, are recuperating at home.

3/28/20  In Houston three officers got into a “tussle” with a feverish suspect. All three tested positive for coronavirus. In addition, 4,111 officers (11 percent of the force) are on sick leave. In New Jersey, 700 law enforcement officers have tested positive. Fifty Detroit PD officers (.2 percent) including Chief James Craig have also tested positive


Enforcing compliance with COVID-19 restrictions

4/7/20  Idaho Governor Brad Little’s coronavirus stay-at-home order has drawn fire from citizens who call it an unwarranted infrigement on their liberty. Among those joining their call is State Representative Heather Scott, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, and Ammon Bundy, a notorious far-right activist who once led an armed showdown with authorities at a wildlife refuge.

4/7/20  LAPD has filed 37 complaints with the city attorney charging non-essential businesses for flouting coronavirus rules. At least four are being currently prosecuted (see 4/4 entry.) Meanwhile police and deputies in the San Diego area have issued 52 misdemeanor citations to individuals who used closed parks or otherwise disobeyed stay-at-home orders.

4/6/20  Even in liberal democracies, police around the globe have become increasingly proactive enforcing restrictions. Officers in Israel fined pedestrians for venturing too far from their homes, while cops in Australia stepped in to prohibit sunbathing in parks. Authoritarian regimes have taken a far sterner approach, with officers in Kenya using batons and tear gas to disperse a crowd at a terminal.

4/4/20 Los Angeles City prosecutors charged two shoe stores, a smoke shop and an electronics retail outlet with ignoring the City’s “Safer at Home order,” which prohibits businesses considered “non-essential” from having employees on site. According to Mayor Eric Garcetti, one of the smoke shop owners had told officers “forget you’ — probably not in as nice words — ‘we’re not going to do it.’” Police arrested a paddle boarder who refused to come in, and a recalcitrant surfer was fined $1,000.

4/3/20  Chicago authorities cited a yoga studio that argued it was exempt from closing because “it was a place of ‘health and wellness’” and kept holding classes. If prosecuted, its fine could range up to $10,000.

3/29/20 Throughout Southern California police are patrolling parks, trails and beaches in vehicles and even a helicopter warning persons that all gathering spots have been closed and urging them to keep their separation. A surfer who repeatedly ignored warnings to stay out of the water got a $1,000 citation.

3/27/20 (1) Police are treading carefully when enforcing social distancing. In Colorado and New York, where state orders limit what businesses can remain open, authorities are using  shaming, warnings and civil orders to gain compliance. NYPD officers are patrolling parks and other places where people gather and dispersing those who break the rules. Basketball hoops are also being removed. (2) As of March 25th. violent and property crimes in Los Angeles were respectively 14 and 12 percent lower than during the same one-month period last year. Possible reasons include fewer potential victims out and about and increased “hesitancy” by officers to make physical arrests.


Crime, courts, jails, corrections

4/7/20  California’s Judicial Council imposed eleven temporary emergency rules that apply to all courts in the state. One rule sets bail as zero dollars for all misdemeanor offenses and non-violent felonies. Another rule allows pretrial hearings to be done remotely, with the consent of defendants.

4/6/20  (1) Traffic stops and arrests have plunged in major cities. During the second half of March drug and alcohol arrests fell by 76% in Denver, 87% in Providence and 45% in Seattle. However, domestic violence incidents are up sharply in many areas. (2) During the same period, burglaries rose 75% in New York City. Primary targets are “cash businesses, supermarkets and bodegas.” They’re being broken into in the nighttime, when they are closed because of the pandemic.

4/5/20 (1) Attorney General William Barr ordered Federal prisons to expand the early release to home confinement of eligible non-violent inmates housed in the facilities hit hardest by the pandemic. To avoid overburdening parole and probation agents he approved foregoing electronic monitoring but urged gteat caution in selecting candidates to avoid imperiling public safety. (2) California’s prison system has 120,000 inmates. Forty-seven prison employees and thirteen inmates have so far tested COVID-19 positive. Meanwhile 3,000 transfers from local jails are on hold as the state moves to release 3,500 inmates early due to the pandemic.

4/3/20  Ohio prisons hold 39,000 inmates. Pressed to grant early releases because of COVID-19, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recommends that courts let thirty-eight non-violent offenders go. Of these, 23 are pregnant or delivered babies while serving time, and each of the others is over age sixty and within sixty days of release. “What we’re doing is trying to be very careful, very respectful of the local courts, very respectful of the victims, very respectful of public safety. That’s why we set a pretty strict — or very strict — criteria about who we would even think about.” Additional releases would be “methodically” considered, and public safety would come first.

4/3/20 (1) A Riverside County (Calif.) jail deputy who succumbed to coronavirus reportedly contracted it from a COVID-19 positive inmate.  (4) Fifteen of Maryland’s 18,000 prisoners, along with four guards, eight contractors and two parole and probation officers have tested COVID-19 positive. Some cells in the prisons of Maryland and other states have “negative pressure” systems that keep air from being recirculated.

3/31/20 (1) To reduce prison crowding that threatens inmates and staff, California is granting early release to 3,500 inmates convicted of non-violent crimes during the next several weeks. (2) Social distancing, masks and sanitizers are impractical in corrections. With two percent (101/5,000) of inmates testing COVID-19 positive, Chicago’s Cook County Jail is struggling to react. Measures include substantially reducing its population, down about 600 from two weeks ago, quaranting new arrivals for a week, and screening those being released.

3/24/20 To reduce officer exposure and help jails avoid infections, police throughout the U.S. have limited responses to the most pressing calls. Officers in many cities, including Nashville and Chicago, are avoiding making physical arrests for minor offenses and issuing citations and summonses instead.

3/20/20  In response to the pandemic, the A.C.L.U. urges a sharp reduction of  in-custody populations. It recommends that Governors commute prison sentences, correctional systems grant early releases, police stop making arrests for minor violations, and that cash bail be eliminated.


Resources and fraud

3/28/20  Signed into law March 27, H.R. 748, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief act (CARES Act) provides funding to State, local and Federal criminal justice agencies for personal protective equipment, disinfection and overtime. Amounts include $850 million to State and local police and corrections, $178 million to Homeland Security, $100 million to Federal prisons, and $50 million to the FBI, DEA and US Marshal Service.

3/22/20  In its first move against Covid-19 fraud, the Department of Justice obtained a temporary restraining order directing the registrar of to block the website. It is offering supposedly WHO-approved vaccine kits for $4.95, payable by credit card.



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