What American Police Should Learn From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Advice From a Retired Narcotics Officer

By Major Neill Franklin (Ret.)

Police are adapting to the pressures of coronavirus as it spreads to every corner of our country. Officers are concerned for our health and for the health of our families, and many are concerned about social distancing measures hurting our relationships in the communities we serve. Having spent 34 years as a police officer— largely working in narcotics — I would like to offer a broader perspective on what this could mean for American policing long-term.

Those of us in law enforcement who have championed many of the same changes we’re now forced to make — such as releasing minor offenders — are seeing the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst to improve our institutions. I work with thousands of law enforcement professionals who support ending the cash bail system, reducing the jail and prison population, and ending the War on Drugs, among other issues. We speak to legislators, the media, and our criminal justice colleagues about evidence-based policies and programs that make Americans safer. We volunteer with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit organization, because after years of enforcing laws and seeing a flawed system from the inside, we know there is a better way to administer justice; one which prevents victimization, saves resources, and invites civilians to look up to — rather than fear — police.

Every time we make an arrest, we must pat down the suspect, ask them questions, verify their identity, bring them into the station, fill out paperwork, take their picture and fingerprints, and put them in jail. Regardless of the crime, this process always takes at least a few hours. These few hours represent public safety resources. I’m referring to your hard-earned tax-dollars.

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Drug possession arrests constitute the largest category of arrests in the US and the biggest waste of public safety resources. If I spend all day arresting people for drug possession, victims of serious crimes have not been helped. We, as police, are supposed to help protect the innocent and create accountability for predators. Murderers and rapists are on the loose, but up until the last few weeks, most states have been prioritizing drug offenders alongside them as though drug users pose the same threat. In doing so the justice system makes a powerful statement about our nation’s priorities. This disturbing fact alone keeps me up at night.

Drug possession arrests also don’t make mathematical sense. If I investigate an assault case and make an arrest (and that person is found guilty), I have helped remove a rapist from the community. Predators usually have multiple victims, so their arrest and incarceration usually results in a safer neighborhood. Drug possession arrests don’t make anyone safer. Personal, consensual drug use by adults does not involve a victim. The real crime is what the justice system does to the job, housing, and education opportunities of otherwise law-abiding civilians who choose to use illegal drugs instead of legal ones, like alcohol or tobacco. The shift in how public safety resources are spent as a result of coronavirus is proof that drug arrests have always been a senseless waste of time. If it’s not a priority right now, it’s probably not important.

Some officers are concerned that social distancing measures will hurt their relationships in the community since face-to-face interactions are now reserved for high-priority arrests. I understand this concern. Good relationships take time and are the backbone of policing. Our friends are crucial to fighting crime. They report incidents and provide information. There is no substitute for their trust.

I suspect that people who trusted police prior to the pandemic will continue to trust us after social distancing ends. But, every person we don’t arrest for simple drug possession is one fewer enemy. Police make hundreds of thousands of arrests for marijuana possession alone every year. If social distancing lasts a few months, that means thousands of people will not have a traumatizing and life-altering experience that makes them fear and distrust police. Their friends and families will have one fewer reason to be wary of us. We may lose a few good connections because of coronavirus. But, if we acknowledge that drug possession arrests are a futile, damaging waste of our time even after the pandemic ends, we stand to gain much, much more.

I believe every crisis presents itself an opportunity to evolve. What we are experiencing right now all over the world is a chance to re-examine old ways of being that do not serve us, our public health, or our public safety needs. Armed with decades of personal experience and the support of my brothers and sisters at LEAP, I am offering a hopeful perspective for the future of law enforcement. If we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be one of the most important institutional improvements to policework during our lifetime.

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Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) spent 34 years with the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police. He is now the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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.

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