April 18, 2020


Lessons from the COVID crisis that may help soften the looming economic crisis

Dear PERF members,

Today marks the 7th week since I first discussed COVID-19 in the February 29 issue of PERF Trending.  For many weeks, PERF has been focusing on the pandemic as we have never focused on a single issue before. 

And as we listen to police executives in the United States and around the world, what they tell us is that the pandemic is changing the ways in which policing is conducted. When people risk their lives by touching another human being, a lot of activities change. For police officers, this has meant doing more things remotely.

Furthermore, chiefs have told us they expect some of these changes to persist after the COVID pandemic wanes. A PERF COVID Report next week will feature an interview we conducted with Scotland’s Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, who said the COVID crisis has forced Scotland’s criminal justice system to modernize.  For example, he said, interviews of witnesses are now being conducted by telephone, and courts are moving to allow evidence to be submitted digitally.

In the United States, many departments have told us that they are taking crime reports for less serious offenses by telephone or online. Some departments are distributing cell phones to officers, so they can contact 911 callers and ask questions before arriving at the scene, in order to protect themselves against possible COVID threats.  In all sorts of ways, police are finding ways to use computers or telephones to perform tasks that otherwise would involve an in-person response.

It remains to be seen how many of these innovations will “stick” once the pandemic threat is over. It’s hard to predict because we don’t even have a firm idea of when the COVID crisis will end. The big news yesterday was about a new medicine that shows promise for helping COVID-19 patients to recover from their fever and respiratory problems.  It feels like the first sign of a possibility that the pandemic might end sooner than anyone could have hoped. The stock market certainly reacted hopefully. But it’s too soon to know whether the early test results will hold up in larger trials.

One thing that seems certain to me is that, whether the COVID threat recedes a few weeks from now or a year from now, it’s going to have a bad effect on police budgets.

I’m being reminded of the economic crisis of 2008, and how many years it took for police departments to recover from that.  PERF wrote four major reports about how the 2008 recession hurt police agencies, and the final one was published in 2013!

Today, we know that the U.S. economy has already been damaged by COVID, and we don’t know how much more damage will occur before it’s over. Municipal and state budgets are certainly in for some hard times.

As many departments are making tough choices, it will be important to determine if some of these changes may have applicability for the future and help cushion the economic hardships ahead. Many departments are taking crime reports over the phone, using technology to streamline activities. Some agencies are deploying in new ways to protect their officers, such as Toronto utilizing one-officer cars. It will be important to study how this unfolds. 

Police departments’ budget are 90% personnel, and there will be a tendency to keep those numbers the same, so the obvious targets will be curtailing training, technology, and travel. But those are areas where organizational growth happens.  We may find that the crisis we are in now helps us transition to a more streamlined and efficient way of providing service. The crisis will be over some day, but we can’t let the future be haunted by the past.  

I’m already hearing from a number of police chiefs who are worried about what their budgets will look like in a few months.  PERF will begin to explore these economic issues and share our findings in our PERF COVID-19 Daily Reports.

I don’t want this Trending message to be too grim, so let me conclude with this goofy story that I hope will give you a laugh:

Police department issues 'final warning' to Maryland residents and orders them to wear pants while checking their mailboxes

PERF’s Weekend Clips are below.

As always, I’m grateful to all our PERF members who are working with us as we try to keep up with the COVID-19 news.  I hope you enjoy your weekend.




Weekend Clips

ABC7 Bay Area: After one week on the job, Oakland's interim police chief talks challenges, goals for department

After one week on the job, interim Oakland Police Chief Susan Manheimer spoke exclusively with ABC7 anchors Kristen Sze and Dan Ashley about the challenges she is facing and the goals she is setting for her department.


Oklahoman: OKC bombing: Fire chief Richard Kelley & police chief Wade Gourley worked the bombing 25 years ago

Firefighter Richard Kelley heard the blast from his home in Bridge Creek, about 28 miles southwest of downtown Oklahoma City. Funny the things you remember. Regis and Kathie Lee had just come on the television.

Police officer Wade Gourley was home, too, in southwest OKC. April 19, 1995, was scheduled to be his first day back at work after he took a few weeks off to help with his newborn son. Gourley was in the shower and felt the whole house shake.

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