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Law enforcement planning for coronavirus staffing impacts

Prioritizing calls for service, regional policing and engaging retired officers are some of the strategies agencies can deploy


A Denver Police Department officer wears a surgical mask while directing traffic at a coronavirus drive-through testing site outside the Denver Coliseum Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Denver. Officials planned to administer 150 tests but the line of vehicles wrapped around three city blocks.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused public safety agencies to determine the most efficient strategies for dealing with impacted staffing. Agencies often deal with temporary work staffing shortages due to large-scale events, weather-related disasters and critical incidents that deplete the workforce. Most have not been burdened with trying to manage with limited staffing for weeks, or possibly months, on end. Many agencies are already working with staffing shortages due to the police recruitment crisis, officers retiring and other attrition.

Agencies may already have staffing plans to deal with a crisis. Those that do not need to move quickly to plan, revise, or activate plans. This may entail moving to 12-hour “A” and “B” shifts with some staggered overlap hours. One-person cars may be favored during daylight hours, but two-person units should remain in high crime areas and during hours of darkness. This may require agencies to think in terms of day and night operations.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) deals with both crisis and consequence management operations, leadership, record-keeping and financial remuneration (if granted). The NIMS ICS identification of the appropriate Incident Commander or Joint Command is important to organize command staff and coordinate communications, operations and objectives. Personnel considerations fall under each section of the ICS organizational functions of Operations, Logistics, Planning and Administration/Finance.

Staffing Needs by Agency

The imperatives of the mission are determined by each agency in the face of a long-term incident, such as responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Communication and information sharing are key among the emergency services in each authority and include police, fire, public health/EMS, emergency management departments, emergency communications/dispatch, and other civilian support groups and departments.

Lessons found in ICS 300 training (document available in full below) show essential staffing guidelines for supporting an event. The lessons include key functions and to establish immediate priorities:

“The Incident Commander’s first priority is always the safety of:

  • People involved in the incident;
  • Responders;
  • Other emergency workers;
  • Bystanders.

The second priority is incident stabilization. When considering how to stabilize the incident situation, the Incident Commander must:

  • Ensure life safety;
  • Ensure continuity of command;
  • Manage resources efficiently and cost-effectively.

The next responsibility is to determine incident objectives and strategy.”

Safety is identified as the priority of each agency involved, which includes an obligation to provide adequate safeguards such as appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including uniform, face, eye and hand protection. First responders should be given the highest priority in receiving prophylaxis, including vaccines when they become available. Presumptive illness should be recognized for any members who contract the illness or other work-related injuries in the field. A Health Safety Officer Team with EMS/medical professionals should be part of a dedicated team to test personnel, assess working conditions – including regularly scheduled worksite cleaning – and ensure safety precautions are practiced. Field workers should be instructed with other countermeasures including safe distance requirements and the use of sanitizers and disinfecting wipes for repeated cleaning of their hands, vehicles and workspaces. When available, regular testing should be done to keep workplaces free of those who may be infected.

Safety is also a consideration while responding to calls for service and providing adequate coverage. In this instance, each agency must identify essential services to be addressed with their given staffing levels. Each city agency should create plans in advance should the need arise for operating under diminished staffing levels. For law enforcement, this means that minimum staffing levels should be determined based on safety and capacity. Law enforcement leaders should plan for regular interagency briefings (every 12 hours or less) via remote video or telephone conferencing to discuss resource issues and developments. Regional leadership from metropolitan police, county sheriff, state police, highway patrol and other law enforcement groups should be stakeholders in this regional approach.

A Regional Approach

A regional policing model should be developed to blur traditional borders between jurisdictions. Memorandums of Understanding and agreements to allow overlapping services should be drawn. For instance, county sheriff’s departments may assume overlapping response services, even in towns and cities that would normally act independently. Larger versions of this model should be coordinated through EOC supervision and communications to maintain tracking and control. Executive leadership of these areas may decide upon emergency orders to implement curfews to keep people off the streets during late night and early morning hours to reduce the demand for law enforcement services and calls for service.

Individually, an agency must determine which calls to identify as an essential priority, which to identify as essential but at an acceptable lower response time, and which to determine non-essential. Patrol staffing should be the first priority for staffing, even if it means making sacrifices in administrations, investigations and other services. Certainly, the “business as usual” response times and goal achievement standards are suspended in difficult times. With mobile patrol staffing the priority, specialized units should be re-directed to patrol functions, including tactical units, mounted patrols, foot beats, plainclothes narcotics and other units. Reassigned personnel should be readily identifiable in uniform, not merely “raid jackets.”

Addressing Calls for Service

In terms of the highest priorities, it may be as simple as separating violent personal crimes vs. property crimes. In-progress personal crimes of violence should be given the highest priority as a call for service, while mid-level calls may be put on a ‘’wait-list” for response. Some incidents that require investigations may be given a “cold case” status to be resurrected at a later date.

Determining which calls for service to reduce response by personnel is a difficult decision to make. Callers may demand service from the call taker, despite notification of emergency guidelines. Still, some calls may be diverted to electronic reporting systems, while some callers to emergency dispatch may be told that there will be no response at all. Emergency communications dispatchers should be given exceptional consideration in these trying times. Calls should be decided and agreed upon by stakeholders.

For example:

Priority calls for service

  • Already identified “A” Priority calls;
  • Crimes of physical violence;
  • Crimes involving the mentally ill, children and immediate hazards.
  • CFS requiring personnel to prevent violence.
  • Assisting other agencies related to the event (force protection at dispensaries or testing sites).

Mid-level calls for service

  • Already identified “B” Priority calls (although some may be recategorized to a “C” priority during the event);
  • Post-incident crime reports;
  • Traffic-related calls (those involved in non-injury accidents may be told to exchange information only).

No-response or extremely delayed response calls for service

  • Already identified “C” Priority calls (including previous “B” level calls changed during the event).

These calls may be directed to electronic reporting systems where the caller may be required to write their own report.

Interagency cooperation and communications should identify conflicts and priorities.

The ICS Public Information Officer and Joint Information Center (JIC) are key components to identify the priorities of each agency and conveying information to the public by multiple means.

Additional Law-Related Staffing Options

Additional staffing may come from areas of an agency where sworn officers are assigned to administrative positions. Assignment criteria should include factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Light-duty officers, those with a compromised immune system or other physical limitations, and those over 55 years of age should be considered for non-contact positions. Workspaces should be regularly cleaned and spacing should meet CDC-recommended standards.

Non-essential positions should be identified and suspended to increase patrol staffing levels. Civilian staff may be called upon to work 10- or 12-hour shifts to ensure critical administrative duties are performed. Staging and logistics functions keep the workforce fed, rested and paid.

Other resources may be found in reserve and cadet programs for support functions. Civilian programs such as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), or Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERT), and other community-based aid can be put to work in a number of functions that could release sworn personnel to handle calls for service and other law-related functions. Some jurisdictions may have plans in place to require other city agency personnel to train and serve as a Disaster Service Worker (DSW) ready to be called upon as a resource during an emergency.

Retirees and veteran law enforcement organizations may be willing to notify members to return to duty if authorized by the agency. Pre-emptive identification and training should be given to credential and identify the capabilities of each volunteer. Those who have been deemed most at-risk should be excluded in some situations.

The idea of activating mutual aid protocols may be moot since all agencies will be dealing with similar problems and staffing issues. Still, your state emergency services office may be a resource to help identify any additional available resources such as supplies, equipment, shelter, personal necessities, transportation and infrastructure.

TeleCommuting Options

Under current guidelines directed by the CDC, the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to limit exposure to others with the virus. A 6-foot, close-contact zone between people is recommended. Some staff may have duties that allow them to work from home or off-site as a prevention measure to limit exposure with other employees. Consideration should be given to allow agencies to operate as Department Operations Centers (DOC) rather than at one central EOC to limit exposure and risk an integral portion to risk exposure all at once. Personnel under the Admin/Finance Section of the ICS organization may be identified to work off-site.

Administrative and investigative functions may be identified as being able to work off-site if given adequate support and safeguards. Technical assistance should provide database security with secure connections via Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections or firewalls. “Pool investigators” should be identified to serve as a designated interviewer for suspects in-custody, rather than expose several investigators to the secure jail environment. All routine, non-essential training, meetings and academies should be suspended, with personnel from each directed to patrol functions.


Agencies that have identified NIMS and ICS systems to help their response to the coronavirus pandemic are prepared to deal with these issues. Even for those agencies, a paradigm shift is required to move from traditional staffing strategies. The current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic appears to require long-term planning to respond, mitigate and recover from the situation. There is still time for those to meet with their jurisdictional counterparts and follow established NIMS and ICS guidelines and put plans into action to meet the needs of their communities.

The author would like to thank the following police and fire chiefs with extensive major incident response for their contributions to this article: San Franciso Police Department Assistant Chief (ret) Kevin Cashman, San Franciso Police Department Deputy Chief (ret) Mike Biel and San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Chief Bob Navarro.

ICS Staffing Fundamentals by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.