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Law enforcement role is to support public health officials, ASU experts say

'Policing During a Pandemic' discussion weighs enforcing stay-at-home orders

April 17, 2020

The extraordinary COVID-19 pandemic will be studied for decades and will likely lead to changes in law enforcement, according to experts who spoke at an Arizona State University panel discussion on Thursday called “Policing During a Pandemic.”

The virtual event, sponsored by the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the School of Social Work and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, addressed whether police departments were prepared for the pandemic and how they have adjusted during the stay-at-home period.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said, “This should be studied by police departments in their after-action processes as well as in academic departments to help us learn so we can create policies to strengthen the way we serve people.”

Watch the full webinar

Here’s what the panelists said:

Were police departments prepared?

Moir: “I’m not sure there are many police departments in this nation or around the world that had plans for a pandemic. However, we do have plans for continuity of operations in a mass disaster. So this is a like a mosaic, where police chiefs across the nation have taken bits of experience from crises, both natural and manmade, and put them together to serve during this unparalleled crisis.

“The Police Executive Research Forum over a decade ago created a public document on pandemics, and many of us took that off the shelf and attempted to apply it now, but it wasn’t what we needed because the environment has changed so significantly.”

Jerry Oliver, former chief of police in Detroit; Richmond, Virginia; and Pasadena, California; and a professor of practice in the School of Public Affairs: “I don’t think there is any police department around that thought we would have a pandemic as vicious as the one we have. I did have conversations in Detroit and Richmond around pandemic planning, but we called it ‘business and community continuity planning’ and it brought together a wide array of community members to help us with a plan we thought would be agile enough to address almost any situation that would come up.”

How has crime been impacted?

Moir: “Things have shifted. What we’re finding in Tempe specifically is that crime is generally down and calls for service are down. Domestic violence, family fights, aggravated assaults, trespassing and burglary are up. Nationally, domestic violence and commercial burglary are up.

“This will be highly instructive for those of us on the front lines who are deploying personnel to mitigate and prevent crime and connect with folks. This will be remarkable to study.”

Bob Robson, a professor of practice with the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who studies organizational leadership and a former city council member: “People are home more and starting to get into each others’ spaces. There are a lot of thefts out of vehicles and home burglaries that are starting to occur because you know who’s home and who’s not.”

Jill Messing, associate professor in the School of Social Work who researches domestic violence: "We are seeing that across the nation, rates of domestic violence are increasing. The Arizona Republic reported that the Phoenix Police said domestic violence calls were about 20% higher this March compared with last March. And it’s not only the police departments, but domestic violence centers and advocacy centers. Women are reaching out for shelter services and legal advocacy.

"In my research, I examine how to incorporate risk assessment into the police response, which can tell us how dangerous a particular situation is. I would encourage police officers to use risk assessment. If we use these tools to place victims in contact with social services, it reduces violence and increases help seeking. If we can reduce the violence we can reduce the calls."

Should police be used to enforce stay-at-home orders?

Charles Katz, Watts Family Director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at ASU and professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice: “This is where having a fundamental understanding of policing in the United States helps us to understand why we have the structure we do, which is a lot of local control. This is a time when police leaders are spending time communicating with the public, making sure they understand that staying at home is the best strategy. By the time you have to use police force, we’ve lost that.

“The first line of defense is police leaders having a positive relationship with faith-based leaders, community leaders and neighborhood leaders to make sure that public events aren’t taking place. This can be done electronically. There are forums where police can communicate with neighborhoods to make sure the neighborhood stays within the law.

“The law-enforcement community needs to be thoughtful about where they exhibit force. We don’t want to give the impression that using force is warranted. We don’t want to encourage vigilantism. That has occurred with people not wearing masks. We also don’t want what occurred when HIV and AIDS came onto the scene, and we saw names reported to police and information shared that could be harmful to these individuals. We want to keep the extremes from occurring.”

Robson: “Police have done well across the country in letting this stay a health emergency. It’s important that law enforcement agencies keep it in that realm as long as they can. You don’t want it to be a police situation. It’s a health situation. Police take a supporting role in supporting health officials.”

Should some people in jail be freed?

Oliver: “It doesn’t make us unsafe. It does provide an opportunity. This is an opportunity for law enforcement and the judicial system to look at the people we have incarcerated and the people who are not violent and people who are there for something other than a felony. We need to think long and hard about the opportunity to move people out of jail situations and into community-based situations that would be more helpful.”

Will this pandemic change the way law enforcement agencies work with public health officials?

Oliver: “When I was the police chief in Richmond through an epidemic we were having, we developed something called ‘cops and docs,' which was a relationship between the public health community, emergency room doctors and some of our detectives. It was a very fruitful relationship. It seems we could learn more about having police, doctors and public health officials in continuing conversations, because sometimes there’s a little bit of a breakdown there.”

Moir: “In Tempe we are really lucky that we have the Tempe Fire Medical Rescue, which has a robust relationship with the medical community, and all of us in the police space would admit that the fire and emergency operations centers are the purists and have nudged cops into this space.

“When I was at the Naval Postgraduate School studying homeland security, we had a medical team in that cohort and that’s one place we see police, fire, medical, military — all the folks standing together. I saw the benefit of that relationship and that might be one outcome of all of this.”

How do police departments and victims’ advocates keep themselves safe?

Messing: “Social workers need to respond in similar ways to police officers. You can’t say, ‘We’re closing the domestic violence shelters.’ And we know that requests for services have been up. We see shelters in Arizona that are mostly full. People are staying longer because there is nowhere else for them to go. There are hotlines that can be used that are not in person.”

Moir: “We were early adopters to recognizing that this was out there. We had a commander who in December started sourcing some of the (personal protective equipment) that we might need. We early on determined that while we were not forced to change our staffing model, we would do it. We began physically separating key units. If an agency like ours has four bomb technicians and they are working together and then quarantined together, what would our capacity be to safeguard our community? We identified folks who could work remotely, gave them the tools, the access and the enhanced cybersecurity training. We took detectives and created three teams and they do not work together physically.

“We talk about the endurance that’s necessary and this high sense of duty and responsibility. They all want to be here. Most canceled vacations. They want to be out in the community. We have to force people to take time off to build their resilience.

“I got to make a traffic stop today and be part of a retirement event for a longtime employee. In every case, we’re following the protocols by the CDC. We had a generous donation by community members who made cloth masks for all sworn officers and each got two and they wear them. We recommend they maintain space during traffic stops. We are modeling the distancing that we ask folks to engage in.”

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