As police executives begin planning for Election Day and the weeks surrounding it, three leaders in the criminal justice field shared their ideas about steps agencies should be taking now to prepare for that period.

Brandon del Pozo, former Burlington, VT Police Chief

I think this is the first election in recent memory where people could use reassurance that the police are going to be impartial enforcers of the law and protect the democratic process, because the United States has become much more polarized and politicized in recent years.

It’s not just policing. For example, Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its history. The Police Benevolent Association of the NYPD also endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. So we have institutions that have normally kept above the fray suddenly picking sides. And, regardless of who you’re voting for, you want to be reassured that a police department, which has officers in uniform on the street, won’t act in ways that undermine the freedom to vote or intimidate people.

There have been candidates for president saying they will deploy police to the polls, so that needs to be addressed. Police leaders need to get out in front of that to say that their fundamental obligation is to enforce the law impartially.

There’s another tension, which is that there has been a lot more political violence in our nation as of late, on the far right and the far left. There are worries that there could be violence or disputes in or around polling sites or in the aftermath of the election. So there’s a legitimate public safety need that’s in direct tension with the idea that the simple presence of the police could chill the democratic process.

Some may remember that 30 years ago there were genuine allegations of a political party using police to intimidate people at the polls. That resulted in a 30-year injunction against police interference that just expired recently.

It sets up a perfect storm of concern about how police may be used on- or off-duty by either party during the electoral process.

If I were a police chief right now, I think the first thing I’d want to do is be very transparent about what election law requires and what it prohibits from police, because it varies state by state. In New York City, for example, the police certify that there’s a consensus about the ballot count between the officials from both parties. So it’s written into the law that there will be police at the polls. In other places, these provisions don’t exist. So the first thing is for police leaders to make it very clear to the people in their community what the law is and what to expect on Election Day when you do or don’t see police at the polls. Police leaders should point people towards the local election law, so that they can read it for themselves.

The other thing is to clearly state your values. “We’re not here to intimidate. We’re not here to inspect your eligibility to vote. But we will be nearby in case there are threats, violence, or protests.”

And, in the aftermath of the election with rumors flying about people wanting to confiscate ballots or somehow tamper with the results, I think police chiefs should make it clear that they will not take any action like that at all, absent an unambiguous judicial warrant.

I also think that if a police union or fraternal organization endorses a candidate for office, they should probably explain why they’re getting political. Then I think the second thing they should say is, “We want to reassure the public that our endorsement in no way implies that we will be anything less than fair and impartial at the polls. We want to enjoy our right as a labor union to make a statement about what we think is best for the country, but we will draw a firm line between that and being anything but impartial in upholding democracy on Election Day.” I think that would go a long way with the public when unions do break tradition and make endorsements.

Volusia County, FL Sheriff Mike Chitwood

We have election laws that dictate what deputies can and can’t do. As the county sheriff, my job is to swear in poll watchers. Poll watchers are non-law enforcement regular citizens. The supervisor of elections puts on an 8-hour class for them, which is basically a law class to tell them what they can and can’t do. My job is to swear them in as the eyes and ears of the sheriff’s office.

If there’s any violence or felonies, we would go to the polling place. But other than that, we’re not there.

We are ramping up for violent protests. We’re preparing our emergency response team and mobile field force, we’re training with other cities, and we’re making sure that all our equipment is in place. Starting four days before Election Day, we’re on 12-hour shifts and days off are cancelled. We’re more concerned with the potential demonstrations, violence, and looting.

I think we all can be so focused on the violent protests and looting that we don’t develop a full plan for the pre-election period, Election Day, and the post-election period.

We need to have a plan for what happens if a group shows up and tries to intimidate voters. I’ve never experienced that in my career, and I don’t think anyone in my organization has either. How do we handle that legally? What does that intimidation look like? If they’re standing out there with a baseball bat cracking someone over the head, we all know what we’re supposed to do. But suppose that intimidation is more subtle and straddles that grey area. We have to be prepared for what we’re going to do in those “grey area” situations.

This is going to be something this country has never seen, and I’m heartbroken that we’re even having this conversation. But it’s a reality. 

Christine Cole, Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute

Coming from my non-policing position, I recognize that police have a lot on their plates right now, with COVID, budgets, and the protests happening across the country. But it’s important to elevate this issue above the daily noise, because the election is a little over 40 days away and I believe there’s a lot we can do in anticipation. This can’t be and shouldn’t be political. This should be about public safety.

I’m operating on the assumption that this is an election unlike ones we’ve seen before, in particular because there’s a great likelihood that there will not be a clear victor when we go to bed on the night of November 3rd.

Police chiefs have a lot of experience with planning for an event. We have to think about the pre-election period as an event, November 3rd as an event, and also the period after Election Day as an event.

Pre-election, what can you do to publicly communicate expectations around safe in-person voting in the community? What can you communicate to your community about your plans to do that, and who your partners might be? How can we use the models that police use every day for community outreach and community safety during this period? What conversations can you have with key stakeholders pre-election? What plan can you create with others to defuse tensions on the street?

Then there are the safety plans. Have an incident action plan and a unified command center for Election Day and the post-election period. In advance of the election, how do you refresh your officers on their de-escalation training, protest response, crowd control, and the First Amendment? These are all things to think about in advance of the election, and not wait until November 3rd.

We have several recommendations for what police leaders can do on Election Day. You can make public communications to let people know that they’re free to peacefully express their First Amendment rights. Use your command center, follow your incident action plan, and communicate with your community.

Police should be prepared for the post-election period to last days or possibly even weeks. Leaders have to communicate what that means and stick to their incident action plan. They should maintain open communication with the community, possibly using a liaison to protesters who would be a trusted external representative to offer perspective on how the community might feel. That might be someone like a former prosecutor or a minister from the community. They can help you understand how your decisions will be perceived by the community.

There’s an obligation, irrespective of perspective, to protect the First Amendment and the right to protest. And obviously there’s a need for safety and non-violence associated with that.  These ideas are about preparation, communication, and the prevention of violence.


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.