Survey: COVID-19's impact on LE operations
A survey of more than 200 Illinois agencies found that the pandemic had impacted police training, officer safety and community outreach
By Dean C. Alexander and Niyazi Ekici
Worldwide over 14.9 million people have contracted COVID-19 and more than 615,000 persons perished as of July 21, 2020. In the United States, 3.9 million have been infected with the coronavirus; 142,000 have died.
As the gravity of COVID-19 was recognized in the United States, we commenced a research project to gauge the impact of the pandemic on law enforcement agencies.
Our study began with a survey of more than 200 Illinois police departments during June 2020. The survey results indicate that COVID-19 has significantly affected both the internal and external operations of Illinois police departments. These ramifications are particularly profound as they relate to safety measures and risk mitigation strategies implemented to protect police personnel and the public they serve.
COVID-related safety measures
Ninety-four percent of respondents said new safety measures have been deployed, which includes:
- Distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE);
- New methodologies to interact with the public;
- Social distancing;
- Encouraging hand washing and use of hand sanitizer;
- Frequent sanitizing of squad cars;
- Cleaning police stations.
Despite the nearly universal (94%) reporting of the use of new safety procedures, only 75% of respondents believed their departments had an increased interest in their physical and emotional wellness. These somewhat inconsistent answers were proffered because some employees perceive their superiors are not especially worried about their health and welfare despite the fact they acknowledged that safety measures have been taken on their behalf. Unsurprisingly, 58% of participants perceive that they were at greater risk than before the pandemic. In addition to traditional law enforcement officer safety concerns, COVID-19 has added another layer of risk.
COVID-related operational measures
Eighty-three percent of police noted they reduced public access to their facilities. A similar percentage lowered their use of community policing activities. Accordingly, community policing services were lessened by over 80% of the departments surveyed.
As crime often goes unreported ‒ as demonstrated by large disparities between reported crimes and crime victim surveys ‒ the importance of community policing to capture this gap is crucial. Against this backdrop, access to police departments has declined so that physical accessibility and connection by the public to police have dropped.
Suspension of citizen ride-alongs and citizen academies, as well as the elimination of in-person police-community forums, can undermine police-citizen cohesion. Leveraging virtual forums, conference calls and outreach to community leaders in the non-physical world can bridge the limitations on street-level, (physical) community links caused by the pandemic.
Reductions in enforcement actions and in-person responses to calls for service were found among 78% and 76% of respondents, respectively. In combination, these declines raise questions regarding how LE can meet the needs of the public to the same standard as before COVID-19. Impediments to traditional policing precipitated by COVID-19 are likely to endure until the disease spread has decelerated.
New types of enforcement actions relating to face-covering orders, shelter-in-place orders, and policing newly-designated essential and non-essential businesses are new tasks for police officers. Law enforcement has been placed in an unenviable role of having to enforce pandemic-related rules that are opposed by some vocal constituencies. Interestingly, while facial covering has been encouraged to reduce transmission of the virus, they have also been used by criminals to hide their identities.
Concomitantly, arrests, traffic stops and investigatory stops have largely declined nationally with fewer cars on the roadways. Shootings, homicides, domestic violence and robberies have surged in some large cities during the pandemic. Tangentially pandemic-connected crimes (e.g., aggravated assaults, stabbings and murders of individuals enforcing the use of face coverings or those opposed to face masks) have emerged nationwide.
The further fracturing of segments of U.S. society in recent months has also borne witness to a variety of criminal conduct: hate crimes, vehicle attacks, arson, and damage to public and private property by individuals of all walks of life. Law enforcement must contend with these new stressors as well.
COVID-related training measures
The survey found that 82% of police agencies suspended their police academies and in-service training activities.
Stopping the flow of recruits delays the replacement of those who retire, resign, or fall ill. The need to introduce enhanced police training, especially in light of challenges emerging from the pandemic and protests, is paramount.
Likewise, 80% of departments stated they modified roll call procedures. Whether such changes to roll call practices hinder information sharing, cohesion within departments and police effectiveness remains to be seen.
COVID-related staffing measures
Other operational findings included that 68% of agencies modified personnel scheduling. Depending on the circumstances, officers were tasked to work remotely and separately. Here too, what impact will these adjustments have in terms of productivity, efficacy, teamwork and information sharing within departments during this pandemic?
Sixty-two percent of departments expressed they limited staff access to specific police facilities. What are the consequences on police operations from this reduced physical proximity among colleagues?
As elsewhere within the U.S. labor market, 30% of police departments stated they furloughed or reduced staffing due to COVID-19. These pressures on personnel may result in staff shortages and declining morale.
Even before the pandemic, the law enforcement profession was experiencing difficulties recruiting new officers and lateral hires. Budgetary pressures arising from reduced state and local tax revenues due to lessened business activity during the pandemic will put additional strains on funding new entrants to police departments. Also, the emergence of calls to categorically defund the police or to otherwise reduce police budgets going forward introduces unprecedented fiscal uncertainty with likely negative repercussions on the overall recruiting and staffing environment.
The realities of social distancing are a substantial potential source of individual officer stress. Some members of the public are likely to be on edge due to the consequences of the novel coronavirus. For instance, selected community members have been mostly confined to their homes for weeks or months. Others may have experienced job losses, reduced income, modified their living conditions, and added pressures in their familial settings and social networks.
The increasingly acerbic political climate emanating from the pandemic include tensions over stay-at-home orders, closure or restrictions on non-essential businesses, and different perspectives on the benefits (or mandates) of face coverings and social distancing, changes in work conditions, and calls for school and university openings.
All these variables, coupled with protests and anti-police sentiments hastened by the killing of George Floyd, make policing particularly challenging at this point.
This study shows that during June 2020 the consequences of COVID-19 on Illinois law enforcement were significant. How long these changes in protocols and viewpoints of police will endure depend on the potency and length of the pandemic.
Some modifications to policing implemented during the pandemic (e.g., reduced access by the public to department facilities and leveraging technologies) may continue as they might be recognized as improving safety and increasing efficiency in police practices.
Continued community engagement during the pandemic ‒ although stymied by operational changes and health risks ‒ is critical as it affords law enforcement to better serve their constituencies.
The upsurge in COVID-19 cases nationally during the third week of July 2020 portends that the perils and uncertainty that face police in Illinois and elsewhere will endure for the foreseeable future.
About the authors
Dean C. Alexander and Niyazi Ekici are professors at Western Illinois University’s School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration.