December 19, 2020

The Lessons We’ve Learned About Policing and COVID 


Dear PERF members, 

As we approach the final days of 2020, a year that has been unprecedented and incredibly challenging,  I’d like to say a few heartfelt words of thanks to all of you in the policing profession. You have done so much to lessen the damage and keep the daily work of policing on track.

2021 promises to be a much better year, if we can get through the next few months. Vaccines are already being distributed, much sooner than predicted, and many are hoping that the pandemic will start to recede in the spring and summer months.

Right now, I want to thank you for what you’ve already done. You’ve worked hard, and you’ve “worked smart.” 

Back in March, PERF started producing Daily COVID-19 Reports, and as I look back at the very first reports, I’m struck by how successful police leaders have been at (1) quickly comprehending the nature and severity of the crisis, and (2) launching countermeasures with lightning speed.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that to a huge extent, you’ve been successful. One of the first things you realized was that COVID could quickly cause mayhem in staffing your agency, if large numbers of officers became infected or were exposed to an infected person, requiring quarantining for two weeks.

So you moved quickly to prevent that from happening. You changed shift schedules, created separate cohorts of officers to ensure that officers would never come into contact with most of their colleagues, moved roll calls outdoors or held them virtually, closed station houses, shifted to online crime reporting, scrambled to buy laptops computers so personnel could work from home, and made many other changes.

And all of those measures, taken together, have worked. I’m not aware of any situations where police departments were unable to maintain basic operations because a majority of officers had to quarantine at the same time.

Our very first COVID Daily Report, back on March 17, tells the story. We interviewed Cherie Harris, Chief of Police in Kirkland, WA, a city that had a terrible outbreak of COVID at a nursing home. She told us about everything she was doing to protect her Police Department, which was a lot. In fact, Chief Harris sent us an impressive report detailing dozens of changes she was already implementing regarding calls for service, dispatch, quarantine procedures, communications, jail operations, etc. This was only 4 days after COVID was declared a national emergency!

And police chiefs weren’t focusing solely on protecting their own employees. You were looking out for the most vulnerable members of your communities. For example, many chiefs immediately realized that COVID-19 would be especially hard on people experiencing homelessness, who were understandably reluctant to stay overnight in shelters. Our March 30 COVID Report presented information from several chiefs in California and other states with large homeless populations about how they were managing that response.

Sheriffs also began working early on to prevent spread of the COVID virus among their deputies and among jail inmates. Our March 25 report detailed efforts by sheriffs in six counties to protect their employees, jail inmates, and the public. King County, WA already had produced five documents providing detailed guidance to employees about how to avoid scenarios that could result in COVID exposure, use of PPE, office space decontamination procedures, and other issues.

Looking back on our early reports, some of them are hard to read. Our March 26 report presented the first in a series of interviews we conducted with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and other NYPD officials.  At that time, New York was getting hammered by COVID. New York State had more than half of all the COVID cases in the United States, and New York City had more than half of the cases in NY State.

At that time, no one knew that 47 members of the NYPD eventually would die of COVID. But that day back in March, Dermot told us that NYPD had more than 7% of its workforce out sick, compared to a normal figure of about 3%. It was a terrible foreshadowing of what was to come. Most recently, we received word yesterday that School Crossing Guard Maria Papayiannis, a member of the NYPD in Brooklyn’s 68th Precinct, passed away due to COVID-19 complications.

If I had to say just one thing to summarize the 98 COVID-19 Reports PERF has published to date, it would be this: 

Police departments have handled the COVID pandemic the way they always manage a crisis:  They roll up their sleeves and get to work. They focus their energy on achieving goals, not fretting or complaining.

More specifically, here are a few of the lessons that seem most important as of December 18, 2020:

Cancel in-person employee gatherings during the holiday season.  Unfortunately, in-person holiday parties are too risky during the pandemic. As Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams told us, “It’s typical for divisions or work units to have potlucks during the holiday season. I had to send out an email letting employees know that this season, we will not authorize any work units to have potlucks.”

Support vaccinations within your agency.  We’re fortunate that vaccines are becoming available sooner than most people expected.  And police officials are telling us that most of their officers are planning to take the vaccine when it becomes available.  But some officers are hesitant to receive the vaccine. Many appear to be taking a “wait and see” approach.

I would suggest looking to Denver Chief Paul Pazen as a model.  Paul proactively took it upon himself to support vaccine development before any vaccines were even approved.  If you missed our November 30 COVID Report, check it out.  Paul learned that a local hospital was going to be participating in the testing of the Moderna vaccine, so he contacted the hospital officials.

“An hour later, the study doctor set up a call,” Paul told us. “We met virtually with their team, and explained that our officers are at high risk because of the nature of our work, and they’re diverse, which were factors they were looking for in trial participants. We told them we thought there might be an opportunity for us to partner. They liked the idea and wanted to talk it over. We did the same and talked to our union. We had 144 volunteers who helped contribute to this study. I’m proud of our folks for stepping up.”

I asked Paul if he was one of the volunteers to take the vaccine. 

“Yes,” he said, “I was the first from the department to get it. I wasn’t going to ask my folks to do anything I wasn’t willing to do. Many of my command staff volunteered as well. The person who administered the shot told me I was the 15th person in Colorado to get it.”

When Chief Pazen and his union president both took the vaccine, it sent a powerful message to Denver’s officers that they consider it safe, which was key to gaining acceptance. This is an important issue where labor and management can come together to advance officer safety and wellness.  This will be an issue in many departments, if some officers get vaccinated but others do not. This is an issue that bears watching by police chiefs and sheriffs.

By the way, on Thursday the Moderna vaccine that Denver officers helped to test won approval from an FDA panel of experts, so it will soon join the Pfizer vaccine in being distributed to millions of people across the United States.  

Keep tracking how your employees are getting infected.  It may not be where you expect. Since the beginning of the pandemic, agencies have been telling us that officers mainly get infected because of off-duty interactions at home, or sometimes from on-duty interactions with the public. But recently, a number of chiefs have been telling us that officers have been infecting each other.  

Irving, TX Assistant Chief Darren Steele told us, “It’s officers eating together or just socializing. They get comfortable not wearing their masks around each other.  Then they find out the next day that the person they had lunch with was exposed.”

Vancouver, WA Chief James McElvain said, “We have policies and procedures on wearing masks and socially distancing, but sometimes that becomes a little loose around the patrol station.”

Many agencies have established their own contact tracing teams to track their infections and identify any patterns. Long Beach, CA Chief Robert Luna said, “We’ve put together our own contact-tracing team with one sergeant and five detectives. We’re getting briefings from them twice a week on any patterns, trends, or hotspots that they’re seeing.”

As conditions change, change your policies:  COVID-19 policies shouldn’t be cast in stone. For example, Yonkers, NY Commissioner John Mueller told us that he moved to one-officer cars back in April to reduce transmission of the virus between officers. After the first wave of COVID subsided, Yonkers went back to two-officer cars, and they didn’t see any officer infections for months. But then they started to see an uptick in November, so they switched back to one-officer cars. “It’s like a wagon train,” Commissioner Mueller told us. “Two officers still respond to calls, but they drive separately.”

And Providence, RI Chief Hugh Clements told us, “Since March, we’ve learned a lot about how you contract this virus, and we’ve pivoted along the way. In the beginning, our mask policy required officers to wear a mask when they were in close proximity to their coworkers or community members, but it wasn’t required eight hours a day. That has changed, and now constant mask wearing is mandatory throughout the building. Anyone outside of their cubicle is wearing their mask.”

To sum things up, based on everything PERF has learned about COVID over the last 10 months, I see three key points:

  • You’ve all done an amazing job at preventing COVID from disabling your departments. It’s an unsung success story. We don’t stop to think about it, because it’s the disaster that never happened. But you deserve a lot of credit.
  • Vaccines are coming online, which gives us all tremendous hope and confidence that 2021 will be better. This is an opportunity to change the trajectory of the pandemic, and police chiefs and sheriffs can play a leading role in promoting the use of vaccines in their departments and their communities.
  • But we need to be careful not to let our guard down too early.  The next few months are going to be bad, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll be even more brutal than they need to be.  So keep up the excellent work.

Finally, for those of you who may not have heard, I’m saddened to say that our good friend Benny Napoleon, Sheriff of Wayne County, Michigan, passed away from COVID this week. Benny was a longtime friend of PERF who helped us whenever we asked for assistance, going back to his days as Chief of Police in Detroit. He was featured in our October 26 Daily COVID-19 Report, discussing how his department was testing every incoming jail inmate for COVID and taking other measures to prevent an outbreak in the jail.  With the Presidential election coming up, he also told us how he would enforce a state order restricting the carrying of firearms at polling locations in Michigan. Benny was himself a lawyer, so he was able to cut through some confusion about the legal aspects of gun restrictions at polling places.  And Benny was never afraid to do the right thing.

Thank you for everything you do.  And thanks for responding again and again when PERF asks you to complete a survey, give us an interview, or otherwise share your information.

Wishing you and your family a safe and happy holiday season.