At CNA’s Institute of Public Research - Center for Justice Research and Innovation, officer and public safety is at the core of our mission. So we monitor emerging practices as law enforcement and the justice system respond to COVID-19. Agencies have moved quickly to implement a wide range of practices to protect personnel and the public during this pandemic. Some of these are stopgap measures that will have to be eased as the country eventually returns to normal, or at least a “new normal.” Other innovations have potential benefits that will merit close consideration and analysis as practices that could improve the justice system, even after the pandemic is behind us.

Business as usual is not an acceptable option for law enforcement. Nearly 20 percent of New York Police Department officers were out sick at the peak of the virus in early April. At least 37 NYPD personnel have died from COVID-19, including four patrol officers, five detectives, five school resource officers, eight traffic officers, six auxiliary officers and nine civilian employees. The National Police Foundation’s COVID-19 Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard reported in early April that 11 percent of officers from the participating agencies nationwide had been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, and seven percent were unable to work.

Many of the measures taken to protect law enforcement personnel are now familiar in workplaces globally: screening for symptoms and fevers before shifts, supplying facemasks and gloves. Of the 989 members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police who responded to a recent survey conducted with George Mason University, 90 percent reported providing personal protective equipment for officers. But the concerns are familiar, too. Just 15 percent have full confidence they can maintain adequate supplies of protective gear.

Other measures address the unique needs of law enforcement, which had always relied upon physical interaction with the community. The survey found that 91 percent of agencies reported changing protocols for responding to calls for service. It also reported a variety of methods to reduce public interactions:

  • Guidance to reduce arrests for minor offenses: 76%
  • Policies to reduce or limit proactive traffic or pedestrian stops: 61%
  • Training or guidance on maintaining social distancing when responding to calls: 57%
  • Responding to calls remotely and taking report remotely: 72%

Dispatchers have new guidance regarding when officers need to respond and when to provide services remotely. Remote services include taking police reports for non-emergency incidents over the phone or via a web portal. Some 911 centers now take such calls, transferring them to another call center or directly connecting the caller to an officer to take reports or statements.

Many 911 centers also screen callers for people with potential COVID-19 symptoms at the response locations. Some dispatch centers have received address data from local health departments for confirmed COVID-19 cases. These addresses can be used to alert emergency responders to take extra precautions, but the information must be held under tight security. The sharing of such addresses is currently allowed in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Alabama, Florida, Minnesota and parts of North Carolina and Arizona.

Some changes could have positive, even long-term impacts. One agency told us that engaging with civilians around the COVID-19 pandemic has provided new opportunities for community engagement, fostering a “we’re in this together” attitude. Now, efforts to reduce face-to-face contacts are spurring a large number of police departments to experiment with cutting back on stops for minor infractions, which may have the additional effect of reducing civilian complaints about nuisance stops by police.

Other innovative adaptations in prosecution offices and the courts are likely to continue as effective components of the “new normal.” These protective actions can even be a testbed for criminal justice reform measures. Reducing pre-trial incarceration and sentences is in line with current criminal justice reform efforts and is likely to continue. Remote hearings in the courts for have been discussed for years, but never previously enacted in many communities. Once the technology is in place, remote hearings will likely outlive the pandemic.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. This time of great necessity and great innovation in policing and justice will give the Center for Justice Research and Innovation issues to analyze for years to come.

Elliot Harkavy is an advisor with CNA’s Center for Justice Research and Innovation.