June 19, 2020


For today’s COVID-19 Report, we asked the members of PERF’s Research Advisory Board to share their thoughts on several questions:

1. What changes do you expect in policing as a result of COVID-19?

2. Given what has happened so far during the pandemic, what issues should chiefs be thinking about going forward?

3. What research questions associated with policing the pandemic do you see as important?

Highlights from the board members’ responses are excerpted below.   (Most of the replies were made before the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, so the responses focus only on the COVID crisis.)


The Importance of Leadership

Dr. James O’Keefe, a professor and vice provost at St. John’s University in New York City, said that police leaders’ skills are being tested as they never have been before.  “Now, more than ever, extraordinary communication and leadership skills are required to guide police agencies through the uncertainty associated with a pandemic,” he said. “Police leaders are often asked to provide stability and to inform their members and communities about what will happen next, but this is exceptionally difficult, when the future is literally unknown. Operations plans as comprehensive as New Year’s Eve in Times Square are needed.”

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan noted that because many people in the community are not practicing safe distancing or masking, police leaders need to plan for the worst. “What would a resurgence and escalation of illness mean in your community?” he asked. “Where will police be needed?  Will you have the right equipment and capacities for response?  Is there a way you can give officers quarantine options away from their families and homes?  Can you do more to protect your officers?”

In the COVID environment, a key element of leadership is keeping everyone informed. “Communication, communication, communication,” said Punta Gorda, FL Police Chief Pam Davis. “Chiefs need to ensure that their personnel are kept up to date, and must give them an opportunity to provide feedback, offer suggestions, and ask questions.  Chiefs also have to provide the community with updates as often as possible.  If the community has an understanding of what is happening and why, they will be more supportive.”

Dr. Lorie Fridell  of the University of South Florida, in response to PERF’s question about what police chiefs should be thinking about for the future, said:  “Security associated with vaccine dissemination!” 


Anticipating and Leading the Changes in Policing

Former Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Nola Joyce views the current crisis as “an opportune time to re-envision policing.”

“We are in a natural experiment,” Commissioner Joyce said. “From all indications, the economic impact of COVID is likely to be more severe than the 9/11 downturn or the Great Recession in 2008. Departments are already cutting their current-year budgets. COVID also has pushed police departments into changes that others have advocated for some time, such as reduced arrests for minor infractions; police becoming more of a helper or guardian than an enforcer; and more involvement in public health and public safety. I think some departments may find it difficult going back to the previous ways of policing, because of budget reductions and public pressure.”

Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack McDevitt agreed, noting that “The best work in the field of resilience studies suggests that the aftermath of disasters like COVID-19 offer an opportunity not to ‘return to normal,’ but to rethink practices and create a ‘better than normal.’ ”

Dr. Rebecca Neusteter, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Health Lab, sees value in re-envisioning the role of police. “Policing has experienced a huge mission creep, largely correlated with 911’s introduction into our communities,” she said. “Why do we, as a society, default to having the police respond to all of society’s calls (if they don’t relate to fire or medical concerns)? Many jurisdictions have used the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink and reprioritize these precious resources. I strongly believe this offers the opportunity to right-size the role of police in communities.”

Dr. Kevin Strom of RTI International said that some virtual meetings in police departments may continue after the pandemic recedes.  “We’ve talked to some agencies that have really embraced virtual meeting tools to do daily case reviews and other types of regular meetings.  One deputy chief told us he thinks this has actually helped their ability to coordinate case reviews internally.”


The Challenge of Enforcing Public Health Orders

University of Queensland professor Dr. Lorraine Mazerolle emphasized the importance of studying the factors that lead people to comply with quarantining and social distancing measures. Building on her previous research on the effects of procedural justice in police encounters with the public, she is examining the extent to which procedural justice plays a role in shaping compliance with public health mandates.

Pam Davis noted that enforcing public health mandates places police officers in a challenging spot. “It can be difficult for officers to find the balance of enforcing the order and ensuring that the rights of our citizens are protected while conducting enforcement,” she said. This is especially difficult when these mandates are unclear or vague. In such instances, police are expected to interpret the orders and enforce them, which sometimes makes them look like the “bad guy,” she said.

“In many cities, voluntary compliance is eroding, and it would be a shame to spend our community policing social capital on pandemic enforcement,” said James O’Keefe.

Jack McDevitt warned about extremist groups that oppose public health orders. “One development that bears watching is right-wing anti-government groups, including local militias,” he said. “Many of these groups have received increased attention regarding their protests against shutdowns by local governments.  Many of these groups are anti-police and hold white supremacist or other bigoted views. We may see an increase in violence directed at law enforcement as well as Asian-Americans and members of the Jewish community who are being blamed for the coronavirus on many right-wing websites. Police should encourage Asian-American and Jewish communities to report any threats they receive.”


Community Engagement

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus noted that police departments have had to curtail in-person community events in order to prevent transmission of the virus, and agencies are trying to expand their capabilities for online community meetings.

But “this presents challenges in areas where there is a greater digital divide,” Magnus said. Not all households have a range of computers, tablets, smart phones, and high-speed internet connections. Online meetings also can be challenging when participants speak different languages, he noted.

 “Trust can erode over time,” said Pam Davis. “We already have lost some connection with our communities by not being able to attend events, host community meetings, and conduct in-person community outreach.  We have to find ways to continue connections by other means, and the interactions that are in person need to be as positive as possible.”


Preserving Officer Health and Wellness

“Chiefs need to be thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on their members,” said Nola Joyce.

“We saw an increase in mental health needs of first responders after 9/11 and Katrina. There is no reason to think it will be different this time. Now is the time to make sure officer wellness programs, including mental health and suicide prevention, are in place and available to members.”

Chris Magnus discussed the continuing challenge of ensuring that police employees remain safe from the virus, not only out in the field, but also in police facilities where they have dealings with the public or work in close quarters with each other. This involves paying careful attention to the environment in which people work, the availability of testing and PPE, and monitoring employees’ health daily.

The pandemic also has disrupted many police officers’ personal lives, Chief Magnus said. “How do you deal with childcare concerns when first responder parents have unusually difficult schedules, require quarantine, have to deal with their children being out of school, or have limited daycare options for long periods of time?” he asked.

Lorie Fridell, who conducts implicit bias training for police agencies across the country, said she has been getting inquiries from police departments about COVID-related mental health resources for police officers and other criminal justice personnel.

Rebecca Neusteter said that many issues of health and wellness apply both to the general public and to police employees. “We all appreciate that the police are the public, and the public are the police,” she said. “I expect that growing substance abuse issues will greatly impact all individuals and communities, in and out of uniform. The conditions of isolation and loneliness that the pandemic has created are strongly correlated with, if not directly causing, increases in substance use. For example, the closing of gyms and health clubs may be contributing to physical and mental health conditions. We know that people are better able to handle stress when they exercise regularly. Are departments offering or suggesting exercise routines and regimens?”


Changes in Police Training

Another aspect of policing that is being heavily affected by the pandemic is police training. “Police training academies will need to completely rethink the way they conceptualize and deliver training to maintain social distancing and safety,” said University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum. “That is already happening, but like educational systems across the nation, there will be success stories and failures.  E-learning videos are a good start, but agencies should not rely too heavily on videos, because adult education requires human interaction -- comments, questions, exchanges of ideas, etc.  At a minimum, that will require Zoom-type technology, as well as instructors who know how to deliver this type of training effectively.  But even these kinds of virtual interactions are insufficient for police training.  Skills training requires humans to interact in real space and time.”  

Chris Magnus bluntly summarized a key issue:  “Scenario-based training simply can’t be done adequately using virtual or online tools,” he said.

Lorie Fridell said, “I know from my university experience that you don’t get the same level of participation from trainees in Zoom as with a live classroom.” But Fridell added that “the reduced costs of online training might allow for smaller classes,” which could allow for greater participation.

“I’m not a big fan of providing in-service training and executive development through distance learning,” James O’Keefe said.   “My experience is that it serves a limited purpose for quick messages and updates, but quality in-service training, specialized training, promotional training, and executive development is best accomplished through face-to-face exchanges.  Learning management platforms such as Blackboard and Canvass are expensive, and instructors have to learn how to teach online.  It really is a different skill set.” 


The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime

Kevin Strom raised a question about how the pandemic is affecting the reporting of crimes.  “What is the impact on victims, victim engagement, and the likelihood of reporting crimes to the police?” he said. “I think this is especially important for crimes that are dependent on victims or third parties notifying police of the crime –  sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence.  For crimes against children, many of these reports come from schools, after-school programs, Child Protective Services, or others in the community, but this is not happening as much now.” 

Dr. Edward Maguire of Arizona State University said that police chiefs should look carefully at public safety problems that have emerged during the pandemic. “If a vaccine does not become available soon, and if the virus continues to spread, these public safety issues will continue,” he said. “Domestic violence is one such issue. Commercial burglaries are a big problem in some places. Hate crimes have risen in some communities. Right-wing extremists pose a continuing threat that appears to be exacerbated as a result of stay-at-home and masking orders. Police leaders should know their numbers, work closely with crime analysts to identify which problems have become more common or severe, and put in place clear plans to address those issues.”


Recruiting New Officers

University of Pennsylvania Professor Dr. Greg Ridgeway noted that unfortunately, police recruiting tends to follow a counterproductive cycle. 

“Around the time of the last recession, I was studying police recruiting, and it seemed that bursts of police recruiting were always cyclical with the economy, instead of a more countercyclical recruiting plan,” he said. “When the economy is good, cities are rich and they invest in police hiring. But unemployment is low when the economy is good, so it’s difficult to attract new recruits, and departments have to spend more on marketing, bonuses, or change hiring standards. If hiring were countercyclical, police could attract excellent candidates at lower cost. Unemployment is high now, so this would be a great time to attract new college graduates or others to policing. But cities are starting to shrink their budgets.”

Pam Davis is concerned that it may be difficult to attract new recruits now, if people are afraid of exposure to the coronavirus while on the job. “I recently spoke to a co-worker from another city department about the substantial possibility of officers contracting COVID-19 as a result of their duties at work,” she said. “This person answered by saying police officers sign up for this type of risk when they take the job.  I don’t agree that when people are seeking a career in law enforcement, they believe they will be subjected to contracting a very contagious disease that not only puts them at risk, but also puts their families at risk. The public, however, does believe that this is something police officers are expected to endure, and that will make recruiting difficult in the future.”

Kevin Strom suggested that some officers may choose to retire early because of the pandemic. If that happens, will departments be able to fill the vacancies, particularly when many training academies are closed or constrained?


Data Collection During the Pandemic

Dr. Sean Goodison, Deputy Director of PERF’s Center for Applied Research and Management, urged police officials to facilitate current and future research on the impact of COVID-19 on policing by keeping data about how the pandemic is affecting police agencies and crime, and police responses.  Ideally, this should include the following elements, he said:

-- Timelines of policy changes, executive orders, new protocols, and other events that changed police responses. Knowing when and how events rolled out is critical for future evaluations.

-- A plan to collect key metrics, both external (e.g., calls for service, crime reports, arrests) and internal (e.g., staffing, leave, budgeting).  Data should be recorded in digital formats.  Information recorded in narrative formats and paper files can be difficult to use.

-- Data from other sources, particularly public health and other public safety agencies.  As police form partnerships with other agencies in their COVID response, data collection should be considered.

Dr. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina provided a list of issues and data that police should track and analyze in the context of the COVID pandemic:

  • Sick leave 
  • Staffing shortages
  • Issues with day care for children and other family/work balance issues
  • Experience with the virus as a weapon 
  • Trends in domestic violence calls
  • Issues enforcing social distancing orders
  • PPE shortages and business partnerships
  • Communication between command staff and employees
  • Issues with incident command
  • State, local and federal cooperation issues.


PERF is grateful to our Research Advisory Board members for sharing their expertise with us.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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