For decades, departments across the nation have had to adapt to environments on the streets that change along with current events.
by Hilary Rodela
L & R Investigations LLC
COVID-19 has changed the way we do everything, including health and safety policies that are now in place in police departments because of the pandemic. But the job of a police officer never stops — even when the rest of the world seems to be at a screeching halt. In order to adjust to the present time, agencies must modify the way their departments are run and how officers handle their jobs.
Handling Crisis in the Past
Looking back in history, organized police forces did not exist before 1844. Prior to that time, there were “night watchmen,” but they were not a proper police department. New York City was the first to establish and organize a police department, spurred by the need for more law and order due to the circumstances at that time. Not long after, other cities and states followed suit. The communities and local governments adapted to the times — just as modern departments do these days.
As time went on, and police assumed more responsibilities, departments developed and organized more divisions — such as detective units and specialized units for particular types of investigations. England put together the first detective unit in 1842. Crime was increasing at the time, so there was a need for specialized units to investigate — again, adapting to the times and situations at hand.
The most common change — and the one that is different from times in the past — is how officers handle calls. Aside from a few phone calls placed here and there, before, officers would respond in person to a call most of the time. This is true for any call, from a lost property report to an incident of a more severe nature. These days, because of the pandemic, officers have been advised to handle as many calls as they can via phone. The Ruidoso (NM) Police Department – jurisdiction size, 16.1 sq. mi.; population, 8,600 — issued such an order early on in the outbreak in order to keep its officers safe. Larger departments with higher volumes of calls to handle encourage the public to email in order to make reports.
Other areas of law enforcement that COVID-19 has affected include which crimes result in actual jail time. Fort Worth TX and Denver CO departments were advised to not make arrests for misdemeanor crimes; in areas of New Mexico, officers were advised to only make arrests for felony warrants or crimes. The intent behind this mandate was to limit officers’ exposure as well as to lessen the amount of potential COVID-19 exposure in the jails. For those occasions when the circumstance would normally lead to an arrest — but is a little on the grey side, due to the current circumstances — officers have been advised to seek approval from a supervisor in order to arrest.
The pandemic has affected traffic stops as well. Departments across the United States have limited the number of traffic stops officers conduct so that officers lessen contact with the public. For most, the exception is if the situation is extreme — such as drunk driving and erratic/unsafe driving. Those departments that have not implemented restrictions for traffic stops have set guidelines for their personnel on how to practice health and safety while interacting with the public.
Buildings & Trainings
As far as departments and their buildings are concerned, most places have modified the way they handle the public — and even how they conduct trainings and other in-house events. Masks are a must just about everywhere. However, some law enforcement agencies have implemented policies requiring personnel wear masks when dealing with the public as well as when working in close proximity to their co-workers. Trainings have been limited to only a handful of officers at a time with the proper amount of distance between them. In some places, extra sanitizing booths have been set up inside departments or at entrances.
Another new implementation has been the screening of officers when they arrive for duty. Many departments are checking officer’s temperatures before they begin their shifts. Those who may have a higher temperature may be sent home or placed under quarantine for a period of time.
The pandemic has prompted more departments to issue their officers additional personal protection equipment for certain situations. However, for some law enforcement personnel, such as crime scene investigators, none of this equipment is new. Disposable jumpsuits, booties and changing gloves multiple times at one scene are all part of standard PPE practice for CSIs. All in all, it is merely an adjustment for officers, and these procedures and added equipment may not be a bad habit to maintain, either. The more safety precautions that are put into place, the less likely officers will encounter trouble that stems from any type of biohazardous material.
Riots and Politics
Recently, the murder by a uniformed peace officer of unarmed citizen George Floyd has also made its mark on the world of law enforcement and how things are handled. Several agencies have taken to developing new policies that entail being more transparent with their communities about what their policies are as well as the actions of their officers. Some require officers to refrain from using use-of-force methods.
Policing hasn’t changed much. In the 1900s, officers were faced with a variety of obstacles making their jobs that much more difficult. Around that time, there were several political leaders vying for control over their communities, which caused friction as well. This was also the cusp of Prohibition; police were so busy handling calls, that private detectives were brought in to assist with a variety of tasks.
The challenges of late have been scenarios such as autonomous zones, riots and protests. In Seattle, when violence broke out in the autonomous zone, police were prohibited from rendering help. Since then, the zone has been taken down. However, these types of situations prompt police departments to reevaluate how they handle these particular situations or if they need to add policies they may not have thought about before.
‘It’s Difficult to Police Effectively’
Many of these situations have held police in a negative light, which adds to the difficulty police may face when trying to handle the situation to the best of their ability. All of these events have required police presence in one form or another — but the fact remains it is difficult to police effectively. Instances of high intensity and potential violence will, of course, require a different type of police intervention than those that are peaceful. Peaceful protests have had some police presence, but without any need for recourse.
Though police departments have been tested to the limit this year, these are not new situations. Every decade or phase of policing has faced similar situations. The best solution is to simply adapt and modify to the situation as best as can be done. Challenges will always arise in the world of law enforcement, but it is how those situations are handled that determines the true outcome of success.
About the author: Rodela has extensive law enforcement training and is an experienced public safety writer. She has also been a CSI and is now a private investigator for the state of New Mexico.