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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
As state and county governments struggle to enforce regulations designed to reduce the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, it often falls to law enforcement to support health departments and other agencies in these efforts.
But enforcing shutdowns, social distancing, and similar rules creates not only additional service demands but also considerable operational challenges and can even pose a threat to the health of agency personnel. And a year into the pandemic, state mandates often differ from county requirements, leading to some confusion.
To tackle these challenges, agencies across the country have adapted practices and procedures, coming up with some innovative ways to operate in a changed environment. A common practice is reducing physical interaction by responding by phone or internet to more calls for service. In Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw says, “We haven’t cut back on proactive things, such as searches or traffic stops. But when a dispatcher gets a call, he or she starts by asking if it is an emergency, then asks if anybody in the home has had COVID or felt sick in the last few days.”
“We respond to a lot of basic reports and minor things over Zoom as well as by phone,” says Bradshaw. “If somebody lost a wallet at the mall, or even a stolen car, we can handle that electronically. If we do have to respond personally, we can usually have people step outside to talk to deputies in the open air.”
Technology has played a larger role in many departments since the pandemic began in March 2020, enabling them to conduct community meetings through video conferences and connect with local youth through podcasts. Drones are also being used for patrolling large gatherings suspected of violating social distancing regulations. And in some cities, police use robots for contact-free interactions. Digidog, the New York Police Department’s 70-pound robotic dog, has cameras, lights, and a two-way communication system attached to it. The Honolulu (Hawai’i) Police Department’s robotic dog, Spot, uses thermal imaging to detect human temperature changes in the homeless population. Spot can also provide telemedicine or medical supplies, in addition to carrying out policing tasks such as investigating crime scenes.
Technology has also become more present in the nation’s courtrooms, with state courts conducting many proceedings remotely, police departments presenting cases to District Attorneys through Zoom. In Alabama, witness testimony can be given remotely in depositions. In some courts that have held trials virtually, it has been noted that jurors can see evidence and defendants’ faces better on camera than in the courtroom.
Across the nation, local law enforcement has been supporting health departments, liquor control boards, and other agencies in their efforts to enforce social distancing and other mandates—often accompanying officials on inspections.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, police escort civilian health inspectors to provide security, and in Baltimore County, Maryland, a multiagency Social Distancing Task Force has carried out thousands of inspections of area restaurants and other businesses.
In Palm Beach County, Florida, the COVID Education and Compliance Team (CECT)—which includes the Sheriff’s Office, county police departments, state agencies, convenience store owners, and others—was set up to address such concerns. Most often tasked with responding to complaints against businesses believed to have violated social distancing and mask guidelines, CECT team members visit restaurants, bars, even movie theaters to determine whether railings and other surfaces frequently disinfected and seats are spaced out.
Says Sheriff Bradshaw, “We accompany inspectors if they need us and work with the state beverage commission to be sure bars are in compliance.” But he notes that the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) gets few calls about violations of mask or social distancing mandates, and its deputies take an easygoing approach to enforcing them.
However, they have made some arrests for trespassing. “If the owner of private property says nobody can be inside without a mask, and people who won’t wear one refuse to leave, they are arrested for trespassing, not mask wearing.”
To support all the COVID related restrictions, the PBSO has produced some YouTube videos. “Our message is ‘We’re not trying to ruin your life, but the only way we can get out of this is by everybody following the guidelines.’”
The PBSO is also actively involved with community policing. “Since COVID struck, this includes helping people get to testing and vaccination sites, as well as helping to get food out to those who need it,” Sheriff Bradshaw says. “We are also encouraging people to get vaccinated. The office made a video of me getting the shot and posted it to YouTube and our website.”
Sheriff Bradshaw points out the efforts the PBSO has made to keep the virus in check in the county jails too. “That environment is like a breeding ground for the virus,” he notes. “But we’ve been pretty well off. We have a less than 1 percent infection rate, not 70 percent, which is the national average for detention facilities.”
He attributes this low rate to new protocols. “We screen everybody, then quarantine them whether or not they test positive for the virus before they go into the prison population.”
The quarantines and lockdowns are likely to cause many agencies to face financial challenges as well. With area taxpayers out of work and restaurants or other businesses closed or operating at a loss, the taxes that fund law enforcement will be reduced in some locations.
Budget cuts may require law enforcement agencies to reconsider how they provide services, and some programs may have to be scaled back. Continued collaboration with county or state government and community stakeholders can help all of them deal with shared fiscal problems.
And the work-arounds that police departments and sheriffs’ offices have developed to deal with operational challenges, especially those that are technology-based, may become the new normal. Solutions that worked during this event can increase effectiveness, efficiency, and safety far into the future.
Sr. Technical Writer
The COPS Office
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