Quick Take: How police leaders can improve officer safety during the COVID-19 crisis

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best identifies how departments can keep an open line of communication with officers as they respond to the pandemic


On January 21, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was announced in the state of Washington.

Days after the first case, Seattle became one of the earliest and hardest-hit areas.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, a 28-year veteran with the Seattle Police Department, was among the four U.S. police leaders who presented during FirstNet's "Coping with COVID-19: Best practices for law enforcement" webinar.

Both the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Fire Department have used social media to communicate about PPE to the public.
Both the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Fire Department have used social media to communicate about PPE to the public. (Photo/Seattle PD Facebook)

During the webinar, the four presenters described what COVID-19 practices are working, which ones are not and lessons leaders have identified as they continue to battle the outbreak in their communities.

Best's presentation, which focused on human resource issues, identified ways departments can ensure they are transparent and in constant communication with their officers.

Memorable quotes on human resource management during a crisis

On March 3, Seattle's Mayor Jenny Anne Durkan issued a proclamation of civil emergency for the state due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. A week later, the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic.

Since then, Best says the department has been moving forward at a rapid pace as the situation has quickly evolved and escalated. Understanding how to share and disseminate correct information among officers, she says, has been an important mission for the department.

Here are four memorable quotes from Best's presentation.

"Right from the beginning, my No. 1 priority was ensuring the safety of our first responders and our police officers in the field. The fact is, if they aren't healthy, they can't support everyone else. We made it a point to provide information and equipment and establish protocols that were going to be necessary moving forward."

"We made it a primary point to ensure that we had transparency. Rumors will grow and multiply if there's a vacuum in the information sharing."

"We are continuing to focus on pushing information to the troops. The six things that I will say is: plan, plan, plan – we're always working on contingencies for staffing, protocols and updating that as much as possible – and communicate, communicate, communicate."

"You cannot overshare this information and it's OK to repeat it. We found that we've been able to keep people relatively calm and relatively assured that one, we're taking care of them, and the public knows that we are also able to respond to calls for service."

Top takeaways on information sharing and safety measures

In a time of crisis, you can never share too much information. However, due to the rapid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, departments must ensure they're sharing accurate and timely information.

Here are four key takeaways from Best's presentation:

1. Think outside the box: Find ways to stay in constant communication with officers

The department's information sharing, Best said, has been well-coordinated.

"Our information has been consistent, working with both our emergency operations center that was set up for the city, and then our Seattle police operations center, which had the standard ICS model operations, logistics, planning, admin and finance," Best said.

Additionally, the department started using command staff videos and a central internal webpage to supplement information going out to the department's officers.

"It consistently updates with new information as it becomes available," she said.

The department is also sending out daily emails and conducting virtual rolls calls, which Best calls a "new phenomenon" for the department.

"It's a way to get information out to our frontline members quickly and simultaneously as needed," she said.

2. Limit exposure by reducing the number of people in your facility

Seattle's command staff has been split in half to combat potential COVID-19 exposures. The department currently has 12 members on command – six are on and six are working from home every day.

"Our initial information was that anywhere from 30% to 60% of people will be COVID-19 positive," Best said. "Chances are that some of our command members will also be positive; we wanted to make sure that we limited our exposure to each other and had backup in case any of us became COVID-19 positive."

Less-essential personnel were also sent home to work to limit the number of people in the department's facilities.

3. Flag possible COVID-19 positive 911 calls and advise officers on PPE needs

For every call that comes into the department's 911 center, there are two questions that are asked:

  • Does anyone at the location have a fever, cough or shortness of breath? If the answer is yes, they update the call to "PPE advise."
  • Has anyone at the location tested positive for COVID-19? If the answer is yes, they update the call with "PPE advised, high-risk."

When officers respond to a high-risk call, they wear full protective gear, including a gown, gloves, eyewear and an N95 mask.

4. Set up a testing site and train officers on how to administer the swabs

Due to the ingenuity of the department's personnel, Best said they were able to come together and set up the first COVID-19 testing site in the country for first responders.

"We had 60 EMTs in our department, 14 of which volunteered to get the additional training to do the swabbing, as well as 14 paramedics from the fire department," Best said. "Once that was approved, everyone got the training and they were approved to do the testing."

The department found and secured a facility within their own premises for officers to drive through to get testing.

"It was a great help to making sure officers knew that they could be tested immediately once screened by the medical doctor and we can get those results," Best said. "We could keep people working that need to work and get people offline that need to be offline."

The next step was ensuring officers who needed to isolate had a place to stay. The department secured a contract with local hotels for first responders.

"If an officer is COVID-19 positive, we have a hotel facility that they can stay at until 14 days, plus three days with no symptoms, and then they can come back online," Best said.

Additionally, the department is working on securing childcare facilities for responders that are needed on the frontline.

Learn more about police response to COVID-19

First responders do not have the luxury to wait and see how a crisis evolves. They must continue moving forward – sometimes at a rapid pace.

To learn more about how departments are preparing for and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, see these Police1 articles:

Read the next article in the series: Why proper jail management should not be forgotten during a pandemic

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