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Officers Adapt to COVID-19 with New Protocol, New Response Realities

By Daniel Fosteralumnus, American Military University

Over the last several months, Americans have had to adapt to a way of life that was both unexpected and unprecedented – at least for anyone under the age of 100. When the first case of COVID-19 appeared in the United States on January 20, it brought with it far-reaching implications, the likes of which have not been seen since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Many governors have issued stay-at-home orders advising their citizens to remain at home unless they must travel for an essential purpose such as acquiring food or medical care. In the past six weeks, more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. Across the country schools have been closed, many for the rest of the school year. Private businesses have been shuttered and it’s expected that the financial consequences of the pandemic will mean many will never reopen. Professional sports leagues have cancelled or postponed entire seasons. All shows on Broadway have “gone dark.”

COVID-19 Established What Professions Are ‘Essential’

Despite all of the new restrictions put into place to combat the spread of COVID-19, many Americans have found themselves thrust into the frontlines of a war against an invisible enemy.

For those who work in retail, food services, healthcare, or emergency medical services, not going to work is not an option. Perhaps now more than ever, the future of our country is relying on the willingness and determination of a select group of citizens to put their health and safety on the line for the benefit of the entire population. We’ve even popularized a term for these people: essential personnel.

Among the list of essential personnel are the roughly one million law enforcement professionals who have continued to don their uniforms each day in an effort to maintain law and order during these uncertain times.

[Related: How Coronavirus Has Stifled the Criminal Justice System]

While going to work remains a part of the daily life of America’s police officers, that is where the similarities with pre-COVID times end for many officers on the street. As a patrolman in a busy Pennsylvania police department, I have experienced firsthand the changing landscape of police work amid the pandemic.

How Law Enforcement Has Adapted to COVID-19

Thinking back to what seems like a lifetime ago – yet it was only a few months – I remember the first order my chief sent out regarding new, temporary protocols. He mandated that our department would:

  • No longer accept non-emergent, walk-in complaints
  • Handle most non-priority calls for service by phone
  • Limit making vehicle stops to egregious offenses

In addition, he implemented internal measures meant to mitigate the potential spread of the virus within our department, including:

  • Requiring officers to apply hand sanitizer prior to entering their patrol vehicle or the station
  • Conducting shift changes remotely
  • Requiring all uniform items to be cleaned and sanitized daily
  • Mandating face masks to be worn during any personal contacts
  • Providing all officers with full sets of personal protective equipment (PPE), consisting of N95 masks, biohazard suits, and boot covers. These are worn during contact with anyone confirmed to have COVID-19.

Thankfully, in part due to the early implementation of these mitigation efforts, our department has not had a member diagnosed with COVID-19.

How COVID-19 Changed Officers’ Daily Duties

While officers adapted to the new – and hopefully temporary – measures, work otherwise had to go on as usual; or did it?

Due to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order, the roads are all but empty. What was once a busy stretch of interstate highway bisecting our jurisdiction has been reduced to an occasional vehicle at rush hour. Calls for service have dropped drastically as common criminals have been forced to stay home or stand out – and get caught – during forced business closures.

[Related: The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Reducing Some Types of Crime]

Perhaps due to that same stay-at-home order, familial disputes and incidents of domestic violence made up the majority of our calls throughout March and April, although I don’t believe we saw a definite increase in those calls.

As the calendar has turned to May, and the peak of the virus’s reach seems to have passed in many places, cities and states are beginning to revive their economies. With that revival comes increased traffic on the roads and in shopping districts because Americans are eager to get out and experience the daily life that we once took for granted. Undoubtedly, calls for service will pick up again. A normal workload of crashes, arrests, and vehicle stops will resume for much of the nation’s law enforcement officers.

During this transition to what will become a new definition of normal, it is vitally important that police officers remain vigilant – not just to protect ourselves from visible enemies, but to shield ourselves and our families from invisible ones as well.

I’m interested in hearing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected other departments throughout the country. Please comment below to share your experience.

COVID-19About the AuthorDaniel Foster has 10 years of law enforcement experience and nine years of military service in the United States Marine Corps and Pennsylvania Air National Guard. He has served as a patrol officer, SRT operator, field training officer, and criminal interdiction team leader. Daniel specializes in drug-related enforcement and is an IACP-credentialed Drug Recognition Expert. Daniel also works as a law enforcement instructor and maintains numerous instructor certifications. He holds a B.A. in criminal justice and an M.A. in criminal justice from American Military University.

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