May 9, 2020


The “Social Distancing Police” vs. Community Policing

Dear PERF members,

All last week, as we worked on our COVID-19 Reports, I was struck by a common theme we kept hearing from police chiefs, from the beaches of Florida and California, to cities with meat-packing plants in Iowa and Maryland, to the streets of Savannah, GA.  In all of these cities, police are being challenged in ways they never have been before.

It struck me when Chief Roy Minter of Savannah said, “We don’t want to be the social distancing police.” And the more I thought about it, the more it resonated with me. Social distancing is the antithesis of community policing.  Who wants to tell a group of people going to the beach to have a picnic that they can’t do that, that they have to disperse? On the other hand, keeping people separated could save their lives.

Chief Robert Handy of Huntington Beach, CA told us that “it’s unrealistic for police to enforce social distancing” in his jurisdiction, because no one even knows what the rules are about whether and how to reopen the local economy. “The federal government says one thing, the state of California says another, our county health department says another, our city attorney says another, the district attorney’s office says another,” Chief Handy said. “The cops are stuck right in the middle of these conflicting orders and conflicting direction.”

For the most part, Americans apparently have felt the danger of becoming infected with the Coronavirus, and have complied voluntarily with the rules. But there have been some ugly incidents. In New York City, an estimated 2,500 people gathered in the streets to mourn the death of a rabbi, in an extreme violation of social distancing rules.

Police dispersed the crowd, and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea pleaded with the community to understand that if they gather in large groups, “you’re putting members of my department at risk.”  As of yesterday, 41 members of the NYPD have died from COVID-19 infections.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that social distancing rules are about to become more complicated and difficult.  So far, most public health orders have been fairly clear-cut.  Most types of businesses have been closed, and with certain exceptions, people have been told to stay home and work from home.

But now, some states are starting to reopen businesses partially, and that means shades of gray. Restaurants can open, but at only a fraction of their normal capacity, or with rules about keeping tables 6 feet apart.  Or in some communities, people are allowed to go to beaches, but they have to “keep moving.”

So whose job will it be to go into restaurants with a tape measure, and check that the tables are 6 feet apart?  Who will tell the struggling restaurant owners that they have to remove several more tables?  

When Chief Handy from Huntington Beach lamented that his officers are in the position of enforcing unclear and constantly changing rules, I asked him how on earth they’re doing it, and he told me:

“Our cops are just being flexible. They’re doing an outstanding job of trying to educate everybody first and trying to gain voluntary compliance. They’re relying on their ability to communicate and their de-escalation skills. We’ve only had a couple arrests and a few citations in the weeks that this thing has gone on. For the most part, we’ve been able to talk our way out of difficult spots.”

I just loved that:  “For the most part, we’ve been able to talk our way out of difficult spots.”  It sounds like community policing.  It sounds like problem-solving.  It sounds like officers using their critical decision-making skills.

Salisbury, MD Chief Barbara Duncan also found a positive way of looking at these challenges. The Salisbury area has been identified as one of the nation’s fastest-growing COVID “hot spots.”  It’s one of the biggest poultry-production areas in the nation, and it has large Haitian and Hispanic populations working in those poultry plants.  Many are not fluent in English and have not been getting information about COVID-19 risks and protective measures.  “Fear of the government is tangible in these two communities,” Chief Duncan told us. So the Salisbury Police Department is taking on that challenge, working with public health agencies and others to communicate with those vulnerable populations and give them guidance.

“For police to be seen as a resource, instead  as just another part of the government to be feared, is going to be a huge win for us,” Chief Duncan told us. ”COVID has forced us to adopt different ways of thinking about how we provide our services. It has underscored the need for us to be out there connecting with and guiding our community members, in the face of, in some cases, overwhelming fear. This will change the way we view who we are.”

That’s the essence of community policing.  Kansas City, MO Chief Rick Smith knew this from the beginning.  “We have to be able to go back to our communities when COVID is all over,” he told me. “We have come too far to destroy the relationships we have built up.”

So nearly two months ago, on March 16, Chief Smith addressed this issue head-on, writing a blog post to his community that appealed to everyone’s better nature. “Now is the time to think about what you can do for others,” he said. “We all have to work together to stop the spread of the virus, so our health care system has room to treat the sickest patients. This teamwork is not unlike what we all must do to stop violent crime in our community. With a little bit of prevention, we could all really change the course of a pandemic.”

As always, it’s great to hear PERF members who are finding ways to turn a negative into a positive. I’m grateful to all of you who are sharing your wisdom and information with us.




Weekend Clips

Texas Observer: The Disappeared

Genetic genealogy is helping to crack cold cases and identify victims left nameless for decades. The process is surprisingly effective—and controversial.


San Jose Spotlight: From Levi’s Stadium to drones: A conversation with Santa Clara’s new police chief

After an unexpected September vacancy, uncontested election and unprecedented global pandemic, Police Chief Pat Nikolai has settled into his new role as head of the Santa Clara Police Department.

Growing up in South San Jose, the 48-year-old Santa Clara resident has spent his entire 28-year law enforcement career serving the Mission City, now overseeing 139 sworn officers and department employees.

Nikolai, a former Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association president, has already seen calls for service plummet 40 percent each month during the coronavirus crisis, while property crimes and domestic abuse have increased. Now he’ll have deep financial cuts to combat in the months ahead, too.

Nikolai sat down with San José Spotlight Monday to discuss his unusual transition, continued priorities and longterm vision for the Santa Clara Police Department.


Dallas Morning News: All this police officer wants for his city is to stay safe — and laugh. He’s pulling it off.

Are you ready to laugh? I’d like to introduce you to somebody. Please say hello to the city of Southlake’s police and fire departments, or more specifically, the award-winning @SouthlakePublicSafety social media stream.

Who knew cops on social media could be so funny?

“It’s a new style of policing,” explains Brad Uptmore, the police/fire public information officer who produces videos, photos and text stories that have attracted international attention. 

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