Developing an appropriate police response to COVID-19

This pandemic provides an extraordinary opportunity to reshape law enforcement operations and relationships with communities

By Dr. Joseph A. Cortez

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most unique challenges ever encountered by law enforcement. The implications of our pandemic response will be profound for governance and policing.

While the future remains uncertain, the law enforcement community should anticipate this pandemic will cause a significant shift in crime trends and policing in the United States. Although law enforcement and government leaders are under extraordinary pressure, this pandemic provides extraordinary opportunity to reshape law enforcement operations and the relationship with the community.

A police officer hands young shoppers masks to wear while walking inside the Galleria Dallas mall in Dallas, Monday, May 4, 2020. This is the first time this mall has opened amid the concerns of the spread of COVID-19.
A police officer hands young shoppers masks to wear while walking inside the Galleria Dallas mall in Dallas, Monday, May 4, 2020. This is the first time this mall has opened amid the concerns of the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

In these unprecedented times, law enforcement leaders must look at policing history and recognize how far law enforcement as a profession has progressed in both crime-fighting efforts and community policing strategies. The law enforcement community must be wary of the politics and the chaos created by the pandemic. Irresponsible decisions and baseless tactics in response to the pandemic can only lead law enforcement down the road to internal and external conflict, at the end of which is the diminishment of legitimacy for law enforcement and the increase in conflict with the community.

Law enforcement challenges

Aside from the larger transformation of the criminal justice system, the pandemic has created an enormous amount of practical challenges for law enforcement.

Government policymakers working to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus quickly implemented emergency ordinances requiring social distancing and extreme restrictions of individual freedoms. Ideally, these ordinances and regulations would be based on well-informed guidelines from researchers and healthcare officials. In reality, due to the uncertainty, complexity and the dynamic nature of the crisis, decisions were made in haste and without complete analysis for future implications. Many ordinances are ambiguous while extraordinarily far-reaching. Communities across the nation have been incredibly impacted and have struggled to adapt.

As the pandemic response becomes protracted, many complex challenges need to be addressed. Social unrest will inevitably be a concern. As varied are the versions of social unrest, so too are the catalysts and triggers for disruptive social activities. Law enforcement must be watchful for two major triggers of social unrest, a perceived (or actual) food shortage and diminished confidence in the government.

Research shows a causal relationship between a diminished level of access to food supply and social unrest. [1] Although the United States is a country with an abundance of food, it is expected a portion of the population will experience food insecurities during this pandemic. Closure of food services and disruptions in supply chains will only serve to further fears concerning food. There is also a vast amount of research surrounding the correlation between a decline in public trust of the government and social unrest. [2] This trust is necessary to maintain the cooperation and compliance of citizens.

Developing an Appropriate Response

The COVID-19 pandemic is an uncommon and distinct type of crisis. It is both a global emergency and a disaster in constant flux. It is a prolonged and multifaceted crisis requiring a response both collaborative and flexible.

Law enforcement will need to enter a decision-making phase more complex and mindful than what was required at the onset of the crisis. Organizations will need to invent and retool problem-solving methods. These methods will most likely be found in the most unusual of places.

For example, developing partnerships with food suppliers in the community is one way that leaders can gather crucial information. Such partnerships allow a leader to test the pulse of the community, learn of potential disputes with a labor force and identify delivery locations of concern. It will be incumbent on law enforcement to employ unique techniques to make sure they know which way the wind is blowing during and after the crisis.

Beyond innovative and novel strategies, police departments will still be able to rely on tried and true methods of the past.

Community policing or problem-oriented policing is a pivotal technique that departments used to build stronger community relationships. Departments’ continued commitment to community policing during this pandemic is vital for maintaining and ensuring community trust. This will provide a better understanding of local concerns, priorities and a conduit of intelligence.

Open lines of communication provide government leaders with the necessary information to formulate policies and deployments intended for the overall good of the community. These policies vetted by community input can make it more likely to be accepted by the community. [3] Policy lacking community input and buy-in will only lead to the erosion of public trust. We know that a lack of trust compromises government legitimacy, encourages disregard of lawful orders and inevitably inspires rebellion. [4]

To combat the risk of rebellion and social unrest, law enforcement leaders must design strategies and policies their community partners will perceive as legitimate. A community’s perception of diminished legitimacy within a department can have extreme consequences for a law enforcement agency. Community members who view law enforcement practices as illegitimate are less likely to obey the law or cooperate with law enforcement. [5] Maintaining legitimacy can be achieved in several ways, such as a continued commitment toward community policing, which includes collaboration with internal and external partners. According to the National Forum on Higher Education, increasing collaboration between communities and universities to influence the public good is paramount during a time of dramatic change.

Additionally, law enforcement leaders must recognize that collaboration is a vital part of their response to this pandemic. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the ability for law enforcement agencies to respond to emergency issues is dependent upon its ability to implement new policies, programs, strategies and operational initiatives based on sound information, practices and empirical evidence. There are short and long-term value, including the promotion of greater efficiency, improved quality of service and reduced political damage of research-practitioner partnerships and interagency collaboration. Therefore, collaboration can be a vital means to create a well-informed and rational response to this pandemic.

To address the concern of legitimacy and to build social rapport, law enforcement leaders need to show they are implementing strategic decision-making tactics. Strategic decision-making involves monitoring the environment, analyzing problems, seeking opportunities and implementing well-informed policies and strategies. [6] Departments need to formulate a comprehensive plan of action to gather intelligence and collaborate with external stakeholders. Law enforcement agencies must hone their ability to construct appropriate and measured strategies to respond to disruptive social activities. These blueprints of response will be vital to preserving and fortifying an organization’s legitimacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.


As in every crisis, law enforcement has become the driving force behind the implementation and enforcement of the response plan.

Law enforcement leaders will continue to face many challenges moving forward and must understand how important it is for them to implement policing strategies and policies that are based on logic, research and theory. Looking back at history, there have been many examples of how law enforcement failed to use sound logic and human decency when enforcing rules, ordinances and laws. How leaders manage and respond to the challenges this pandemic brings will have long-lasting impacts on their communities, as well as immense implications for the future of law enforcement in general.


1. Bellemare M. Rising Food Prices, Food Price Volatility, and Social Unrest. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 2015, 97(1) 1-21.

2. Klein A. Policing as a causal factor – a fresh view on riots and social unrest. Safer Communities, 2012, 11(1) 17-23.

3. Kelling G. Community Policing, Rightly Understood. City Journal, 2019.

4. Klein A. Policing as a causal factor – a fresh view on riots and social unrest. Safer Communities, 2012, 11(1) 17-23.

5. Tyler T, Wakslak C. Profiling and Police Legitimacy: Procedural justice, attributions of motives, and acceptance of police authority. Criminology, 2006, 253-282.

6. Nooraie M. Factors Influencing Strategic Decision-Making Processes. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 2012, 2(7) 405-429.

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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