How law enforcement agencies are preparing for the election
Police executives from three cities in states where election results are expected to be close discuss their preparations for November 3
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Preparing for Election Day | Drug use & hiring | Weed legalization impact, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
This article is reprinted with permission from PERF's Daily Critical Issues Report
By Police Executive Research Forum
As police executives plan for Election Day and the weeks surrounding it, PERF spoke with police executives from three cities in states where election results are expected to be close: Las Vegas, Miami and Philadelphia about steps their agencies are taking to prepare for November 3.
Police in some cities respond to calls for assistance from election judges, but do not maintain a presence at polling locations: Some state laws bar police from maintaining a presence at voting sites, in order to prevent any suggestion of voter suppression or intimidation. But police may respond to requests for assistance from election judges to handle disturbances or other incidents. Some police agencies direct officers to periodically drive by the voting sites at a distance.
Police are preparing: While police are not planning to maintain a presence at voting sites, they are making preparations for contingencies – for example, by making sure that officers are aware of the locations of all polling sites, and that officers understand the types of situations in which police would be allowed to respond. Police agencies are aware that the 2020 election could be contentious, and that in an age of social media, a disturbance in one city can trigger disturbances in other cities. Many cities have been experiencing demonstrations for months, and expect that to continue and intensify during the election.
Staffing: Police agencies are adjusting shifts and making other arrangements to ensure that adequate staffing will be available on Election Day and on the days leading up to and following November 3.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Deputy Chief Andrew Walsh
Our city is divided into 10 area commands. We’re making sure that all the area commands are aware of where the city’s 31 permanent early voting locations and 17 satellite locations are. We have to make sure that those working patrol, who will be the initial first responders, know where the locations are. That’s the cornerstone of our approach to the pre-election period.
We also have daily calls with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office, which will continue until after the election. They work with their folks who will be at the polling locations so that they know what to look for and what the triggers would be to call us for a response.
We’re not going to have folks staffing these locations in a very visible way. We’ll have officers do random visits, driving through the parking lots at the locations, to make sure that all the rules are being followed and that everyone is educated on the role of police during elections in our state.
On the day of the election and afterward, we’re developing plans to make sure our staffing is where it needs to be in case we have protests or anything else that may occur.
We’ve been asked to provide security at some of the locations where votes will be counted. We have responsibility for all the unincorporated areas of Clark County, so all the ballots from the outlying areas have to be physically moved to the central count location. We provide transportation and security for that. But we are not at the physical location where a citizen would go to vote.
Part of our message will be to make sure people understand that if they do see a police officer in these locations, it could just be a random drive-through of the parking lots. A lot of the temporary locations will be in the parking lots of supermarkets, gyms, or other locations where we would typically be seen anyway. We don’t want people to feel intimidated or think that we’re there to see who is voting. That is a concern that we’ve heard from our community.
Philadelphia First Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton
We’re planning for two situations here: possible disturbances around the polling places and protests. In Philadelphia, our regulations state that no police officer in uniform or civilian attire will be within 100 feet of a polling place unless they are exercising the right to vote, serving warrants, or are called upon to preserve the peace. For that reason, we established two-person roving response teams around polling places in each of our 21 districts, as well as emergency response teams in each division, which includes four districts.
In Philadelphia, the judge of elections has responsibility for maintaining the peace, and their election officers would call the police to the polling places if need be.
We know we’ll be on 12-hour shifts the day of the election to make sure we have enough manpower to handle anything that may arise.
If officers respond to a polling place, we’re also sending a supervisor and making sure each officer and supervisor have a body-worn camera. We know that there have been accusations in the past of officers being used to intimidate voters. We want to make sure we’re clear that we will never do anything other than be present to enforce fairness on all sides and make sure everyone’s rights are protected. In case we see any accusations, we’re going to have our body-worn cameras on and running during every encounter.
We believe we’ll see protests. Right now we’re planning for two days in advance of the election and straight through election day. If intelligence provides us information that we need to plan for four or five days in advance, we’ll make that adjustment. We’re looking to be in a 12-hour shift configuration, with the possibility of canceling days off. We’ll be driven by intelligence, including what we see on social media and what we’re given by our intelligence center.
Miami police Deputy Chief Ron Papier
We’re very cautious about deploying uniformed voting personnel directly to a voting location because that can create the impression of voter intimidation. However, we will have additional staffing available to rapidly deploy in the event of a disturbance. We will not have any uniformed officers at the polling sites. We will have unmarked vehicles drive by to gauge crowd size or any unruliness that may occur.
We’re going to modify employee schedules for increased staffing, especially on election night and the days following. The COVID pandemic has caused a financial strain, so overtime is an issue. We’ll be adjusting days off and duty hours around November 3-5, trying to bring in as much staffing as possible without incurring much overtime. That will include putting officers from criminal investigations, training, and other units out on the street. We don’t want to take away from our regular patrol services, so we’ll be using other elements of the department to handle any demonstrations.
The Crime and Justice Institute recently published “Preparing for the 2020 Election,” which includes recommendations that cover pre-election, Election Day, and post-election activities in four areas – “norming,” community outreach, safety and communications: