Addressing the internal challenges law enforcement agencies face during COVID-19

Police leaders across the nation are working to balance enforcement priorities while ensuring the safety and well-being of their personnel

By Dr. Joseph A. Cortez

As the coronavirus spread across the United States, the law enforcement community acknowledged there would be many challenges associated with police response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, law enforcement personnel are inherently problem solvers and have worked in earnest to mitigate and avoid major disruptions to policing services in their communities. As COVID-19 response recommendations have unfolded and rapidly changed, police departments have been forced to make incredible changes to their policing strategies.

We have seen the larger criminal justice system apparatus close various components or drastically alter standard operating procedures. Law enforcement leaders have reprioritized calls for service and methods of response, implementing emergency directives to provide officers with guidance on how to investigate crimes and make arrests. Police departments across the nation are working to balance enforcement priorities while ensuring the safety of their personnel.

Houston Police cadets wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic while taking a class photo during a graduation ceremony at the Houston Police Academy, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Houston.
Houston Police cadets wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic while taking a class photo during a graduation ceremony at the Houston Police Academy, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

While many law enforcement organizations rightfully turn a keen eye to managing the overall well-being of their community, they must not neglect to look inward. Police leaders must be mindful of the overall well-being of their sworn officers and civilian personnel and morale within their departments. 

Pressure on resources

The pandemic and subsequent response are placing immense pressure on the resources and personnel of every law enforcement agency in the country, requiring department personnel to operate within a dangerous and uncertain landscape.

The same economic fears, health concerns and psychological stressors haunting the general public are also taking their toll on law enforcement personnel. Departments would do well to remember their people are not immune to the negative effects of this national emergency. Law enforcement leaders must work to ensure they are making well-informed internal policy and personnel management decisions. Failing to make practical, balanced and educated decisions will have a lasting impact on a leader’s ability to effectively lead an organization.

Personnel management decisions during COVID-19 can be complicated due to several internal and external factors, including budgetary concerns and union-related issues. Policymakers can mitigate these issues when they are well-informed about the justification for decisions and possess the capability to articulate the rationale behind them. When determining specific changes to an organization, law enforcement leaders should rely heavily on past practices and sound research.

proactive measures required

Law enforcement leadership must acknowledge the professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis. To ensure the safety of their employees, as well as maximize the effectiveness of their personnel, it is recommended that law enforcement leaders change the way they routinely conduct business.

Broadly speaking, these recommendations suggest a modification of deployment schedules, limiting in-person community engagement, purchase of additional personal protective equipment and temporary modification of the duties of personnel throughout the department. Modifying schedules for key personnel is important to reduce the probability of exposure to all your workforce at once. [1] Taking these proactive safety precautions is essential to maintaining a healthy workforce.

not just a public health crisis 

Another internal challenge government officials across the United States have to address is the financial crisis associated with the pandemic.

On the heels of being tasked with enforcing the strict government orders pertaining to COVID-19, including “stay-at-home” orders enacted in many states, government officials will undoubtedly ask law enforcement leaders to reduce their budget liabilities. Although the most effective way to reduce an organization’s budget is through furloughs and personnel cuts, law enforcement personnel are needed more now than ever.

While many other government organizations are sending their non-essential employees home, law enforcement agencies are calling upon all members (sworn and civilian) to remain at work to deter crime, safeguard lives and property, maintain social order, and reduce the fear of crime and disorder in their communities. Additionally, with many non-essential government employees at home, law enforcement organizations are picking up additional duties that were once handled by other government departments. Although budget struggles are nothing new to local government leaders, an immediate shutdown to all revenue sources is unprecedented.

During this public health and financial crisis, law enforcement leaders must continue to not only emphasize their commitment to crime-fighting and community policing strategies to elected officials, but they must also substantiate the need for their personnel to address the enormous amount of practical challenges posed by the pandemic. Law enforcement leaders must be prepared to use facts and research to make well-informed decisions about their budget and personnel. They must also be prepared and able to defend their decisions to government policymakers and community members.

realign priorities

Although this pandemic has created astronomical challenges for law enforcement leaders, it has also provided an amazing opportunity to realign priorities, get off autopilot and lead organizations. Amid all the chaos, leaders must not lose sight of the internal challenges this pandemic has presented.

Creating an environment where employees feel safe and understand the boss has a balanced approach to policing strategies and their health and well-being could produce a more effective culture within an organization. To accomplish this, leaders must adopt a holistic view of their operations and implement well thought out policies and policing strategies. Even though there are many undesirable aspects associated with this pandemic, effective leaders will not let the negativity associated with the crisis override the opportunity it presents. 


1. Police Executive Research Forum. Responding to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, 2020.

About the author

Dr. Joseph A. Cortez is a policing researcher, professor and practitioner who currently serves as a police lieutenant for the Santa Monica Police Department in Los Angeles, California. As a police lieutenant, he is assigned to the Office of the Chief of Police as the executive officer. Joseph is concurrently employed as a faculty member at the University of Southern California, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in public policy and law enforcement leadership.

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