Recently, New York City reached one more grim milestone: the NYPD has now lost more officers in the coronavirus crisis than it did on 9/11. Across the river in New Jersey, officers have died in Newark, Union City, Paterson, and elsewhere. Also hard-hit has been Michigan, where the chief of the Detroit homicide unit, a Wayne County sheriff’s office commander, and several other officers have succumbed to COVID-19.
Of course, the whole country is grieving from the sickness and mortality brought on by the coronavirus. But law enforcement officers are uniquely susceptible during a viral pandemic. Indeed, the motto “to protect and serve” has a whole new meaning in the shadow of COVID-19. Their job demands that they interact with members of the public, often at close range, and frequently in demanding situations. Police are always a leading indicator of society’s ills. When a community is undergoing any epidemic — whether it be one of addiction, violence, homelessness, mental illness, or an old-fashioned viral epidemic — police will always be one of the first groups to have their lives and work impacted.
For police, there is no way out of the dangers presented by coronavirus. Like nurses and doctors and other essential workers, law enforcement can’t social distance. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept as inevitable widespread sickness among law enforcement during this pandemic. There are common sense public health and safety measures that agencies and localities can take to help protect police. They should take them, quickly, since by doing so they will be working for the health and safety of all those that law enforcement protects.
An unlikely coalition of bipartisan organizations — the REFORM Alliance founded by entertainers Meek Mill and Jay-Z, the centrist R Street Institute, and the American Conservative Union — recently published joint recommendations on steps cities and police departments can take to protect law-enforcement from COVID-19. These recommendations have been endorsed by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of reform-minded current and former officers. They should be put into widespread practice.
It all starts with increasing access to personal protective equipment, which has been so terribly lacking during this pandemic. Police deserve to be as protected as possible as they go about the critical tasks of protecting public safety and seeing to the public good. Officers also need guidance from departments on how to clean and sterilize cruisers, offices, and other shared spaces. And they need access to readily available testing to quickly spot infection in their ranks, and unlimited sick time if they get sick, so they can quarantine effectively and return to duty as soon as possible.
Police also need the green light from departments to change everyday policing tactics during this crisis, in order to minimize the risk of spreading the virus to themselves and others. Officers should have the discretion to reduce arrests, with no pressure from higher-ups to meet quotas. Departments should expand the use of “cite and release,” where suspects in low-level crimes are ticketed and released to report to court later, to avoid exposing police and suspects to shared spaces in lock-ups and jails. Eviction enforcement should be halted, and the service of warrants kept to a minimum during this time as well. Those types of intensive and disruptive operations, which require lots of manpower and feature lots of close contact, can wait for later.
Departments should reassign officers from nonessential operations such as parking enforcement to emergency services. In these times, seeing to the health of others is a public safety priority, too.
These recommendations aren’t ideological. You don’t need to have any particular position on the debates over policing tactics, sentencing reform, or decarceration to get behind them. Instead, they spring from a simple premise: in a crisis, police officers are both essential to the common good and uniquely vulnerable to infection. Law enforcement, from New York’s 36,000 “finest” to Little River, Kansas which has one officer with the rank of Chief, should be given the chance to take every precaution to protect themselves as they work to protect and serve all of us.
Sgt. Steve Miller (Ret.) spent 20 years as a police officer, detective, and sergeant with the United States Air Force and the Canton Police Department in Michigan. He is a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization of police, judges, and other criminal justice professionals who support evidence-based public safety solutions.
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year police veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Departments. He is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) is a nonprofit group of police, judges, prosecutors, and other justice system professionals who use their expertise to promote evidence-based solutions to public safety problems. To keep our speakers at the forefront of criminal justice reform, we need your help. Donate here.