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Policing in a panic: COVID-19 response lessons agencies should immediately implement

Wellness services, PPE, accurate information and relevant emergency policies are all needed to sustain the efforts of law enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic


A North Charleston police officer works traffic at Roper St. Francis’ North Charleston office Monday, March 16, 2020, which is providing drive-through specimen collecting for patients suspected of having COVID-19.

AP Photo/Mic Smith

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit COVID-19 response lessons | LE social distancing | Civilian communications, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

The debrief on the COVID 19 pandemic could take as long as the disease wave itself. However, there are plenty of lessons already identified that can be implemented now.


FEMA’s National Incident Management principles, beginning with establishing command and staging areas, should be established at the soonest point when any event demands an unusual number of resources. These principles should be routinely put into play more frequently than is commonly practiced in most agencies. Events that engage multiple agencies can become harder to manage by the minute if efficient lines of authority and communication are not established in a timely manner.

One voice

During times of crisis and chaos, one of the most distressing experiences for the public is to get conflicting information from authoritative sources. Also distressing to the public is waiting for that information after hearing a flurry of claims across a host of media platforms. A unified, authoritative and timely message is essential to overcome the inevitable misinformation propagated on social media.

The conflict between getting information out fast and guaranteeing its accuracy is challenging. For this public health crisis, the focal point for information should be health officials, but the questions inevitably come to police leaders because of the general public trust in the authority and responsiveness of law enforcement. As key members of any emergency operations group, law enforcement should defer to specialists whenever possible, and be willing to be truthful about unknowns and failures.

Service limits

When demands overwhelm an agency’s capacity for a quick response, communication with the public should be swift and honest. Many police departments attempt to be full service with an officer dispatched for all reports. Others take relatively minor incident reports by phone, or offer online reporting. Having the capacity to increase automated or remote report taking will reduce citizen frustration and fear. This may be a great time for an existing volunteer cadre to spring into action taking initial reports instead of patrol officers or dispatchers.

Reducing discretionary contacts has been implemented by many agencies. Restrictions on arrests for non-violent offenses is another strategy to avoid interpersonal contact that could spread COVID-19 to officers and in detention facilities. Whether those reduced enforcement strategies should be publicized is an open question.

First responder preparation

Police officers should know that they will not be immune to the effects of a disaster in their community. Unfortunately, many officers do not face that reality by preparing for themselves and their families.

Departments should encourage their staff – both uniformed and support – to be informed about the kind of preparedness we preach to others. Officers should have several days of essentials ready for evacuation, cash, a reunification plan, secured vital documents, emergency child care and all the other things recommended by FEMA.

Economic strains

It’s too late to talk about having an emergency fund in place before this crisis, but families should attempt to have six months of expenses readily available. Too many police families live paycheck to paycheck. If one member of a household contributor to the family finances becomes unemployed or underemployed, it can take months to get the budget back in balance. Officers whose off-duty employment has become essential for basic bills can lose that income when required to work double shifts and days off.


Most crises and disasters have a recognized impact on first responders. Donations, free massages, crisis debriefings and aftercare are available for officers working earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, terrorism and civil disturbances. The COVID-19 pandemic does not present the same face to law enforcement and the public, so services that would normally be provided to officers (as rare as even those may be) might not be on the radar in a health crisis.

Police leaders must recognize the mental fatigue this public health event imposes on their officers. Wellness services, as well as personal protective gear, accurate information and relevant emergency policies, will be needed to sustain the efforts of law enforcement for both the short- and long-term duration of this unprecedented crisis.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.