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Age of Coronavirus: Policing a Pandemic Striking a Balance Between Comfort and Control

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Above image credit: Inside a police car on patrol. (Brian Perlman | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Policing a pandemic looks like this.

Roll calls are held outdoors or in sally ports, open areas allowing for ample space between patrol officers.

Temperatures are checked and questions asked about fever or coughing, as both could be tell-tale symptoms of COVID-19.

Squad cars and equipment are repeatedly wiped down with sanitizing cloths. Inside patrol stations, workspaces are cleaned to such a high sheen that, at some, a fog of disinfectant spray hangs in the air.

When an officer goes home, their concern for the safety and security of others doesn’t end. If anything, it heightens.

Officers are shedding their uniforms in garages before heading inside their homes for showers. Uniforms are washed daily in hot water. The heavy cloth is a potential carrier of the highly contagious coronavirus.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” said Nathan Garrett, president of the Board of Police Commissioners. “This is not the sort of thing the department, in its living history, has ever experienced.”

All of the precautions can’t mitigate a factor hanging over the department: Officers, just like anyone they encounter, can be carriers for days without showing symptoms.

“The uniform and the police department door do not have the antibody,” said Garrett, who also spent time as a state and federal prosecutor and as an FBI Special Agent.

Indeed, it felt inevitable when one sworn Kansas City officer and one civilian employee tested positive for COVID-19. More than a dozen other people in the department immediately went into quarantine.

Within days, those numbers began to rise.

Headlines elsewhere, such as New York and Detroit, telegraph shudder-worthy possibilities. More than 1,400 officers in New York have tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 20 percent of the force is out sick. In Detroit, where the coronavirus took the lives of a dispatcher and a homicide captain, the chief of police tested positive.

All local indicators point to the same conclusion: The Kansas City area is nowhere near the peak of COVID-19’s impact.

It’s not yet feasible to gauge the effectiveness of the stay-at-home orders guiding daily life. Nor can anyone predict how the public will react as the pandemic begins to claim more lives and anxiety escalates.

KCPT’s Nick Haines talks with Kansas City, Missouri, Police Chief Rick Smith about how the police department is enforcing public safety measures during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But how law enforcement will fare in its efforts to protect and serve during crises such as a pandemic is studied science.

Much of the answer lies in the past. It’s in relationships already cultivated, or fractured, with the community. It’s in training, protocols and expectations within department culture.

Kansas City, thankfully, has much to lean into.

“My message to the community is we are with you in this,” Garrett said. “We are with you, not against you.”

Striving to Be a Calming Force

An all-hands-on-deck restructuring is already underway.

Kansas City officers working specialized units — D.A.R.E. officers, those assigned to the Police Athletic League, the Crime Free Multi-Housing officers, sergeants, and the 12 Community Interaction Officers — have been reassigned to patrol.

The graduation date of the senior class at the Regional Police Academy has been moved up by two weeks. For the other recruits in the program, their training is being “creatively” modified to comply with social distancing. But preparing new officers for duty continues.

This conveys a message.

“They need to see us and to see that we are still out there fighting crime,” Garrett said of the Kansas Citians the department serves.

And yet, police always, but especially now, are expected to manage a delicate balance of being present, but not overly threatening. It’s the difference between a police state and law enforcement.

“There is no way to enforce a pandemic lockdown,” said Jack Colwell, a retired Kansas City officer who taught within a leadership academy at the Regional Police Academy and now consults nationally. “It flies in the face of everything that we are as a culture and a country.”

What can be managed is how people comply with orders like stay-at-home directives and social distancing, along with the usual range of laws.

Colwell taught approaches of unconditional respect and hyper vigilance, laced with compassion and a deep sense of curiosity on the part of the officer.

Brain science is involved, keyed on evidence that it’s impossible for a person to be curious and enraged at the same time.

Studies show the approach improves safety, for everyone.

“Every contact is either building or destroying trust,” Colwell said of policing. “And what you are doing isn’t often as important as how you are doing it.”

There’s psychology built into de-escalation techniques that police are taught.

“Calm is contagious,” said Kansas City Officer Jason Cooley. “When we show up on scene, we maintain our composure and our calm. By the nature of policing, that is already built into us by training.”

In addition, a level of latitude, discretion on the part of officers, is being allowed at Chief Rick Smith’s direction.

“We are trying to be sensitive to people’s situation,” Cooley said.

The department is keenly aware that many people are out of work, stressed, with bills to pay.

A September 2010 joint study by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Police Executive Research Forum is eerily descriptive of life now under the threat of the coronavirus:

“A public health emergency may result in closure of public gathering places (e.g., shopping malls, places of worship), the dismissal of students from local schools, the creation of special mechanisms for the distribution of medication and vaccines, and the overcrowding of medical facilities. Law enforcement agencies will be expected not only to maintain public order, but also to assist public health officials in ensuring compliance with federal, state, or local public health orders.”

Police will fulfill those roles possibly while understaffed if officers fall ill, or without the help of neighboring departments because they are busy handling situations within their own jurisdictions.

So far, area police departments say they are generally pleased with the level of compliance from the public. In fact, they’ve been deeply moved by offers of help with donations of hand sanitizers and face masks.

In Kansas City, Kansas, Officer P.J. Locke is normally assigned to the Police Athletic League (PAL), a new program drawing more than 40 area youth nightly to boxing, archery and painting courses.

It’s shuttered for now. And they’re gearing up to offering workouts and painting courses online.

Locke tends to the PAL community garden alone as the volunteer master gardener is self-quarantining in an effort to protect older family members. He also has been reassigned to check on businesses, where he’s found no issues.

Like other members of the department, Locke has been told that educating people about the need to stay-at-home and social distance is the top priority, not enforcement.

“I know everything will change, that some type of enforcement could eventually be needed,” Locke said. “But the rule for now is education. Educate people and keep on moving.”

In Overland Park, teenagers congregating in groups too large for social distancing is still an issue, especially to play basketball, said Officer John P. Lacy.

Last week, police simply removed the hoops and the nets at several public spaces. The approach mitigated the need for any citations, or appearing too heavy-handed, Lacy said.

Drunk driving is down, as the bars are closed. That said, the department is mindful that people are frightened, and that their fears might increase.

“The unknown is what fear is,” Lacy said. “We know what COVID-19 is, but we don’t know what its capability is.”

Relationship Forge Resilience

Communication is key. And that’s one aspect of Chief Smith’s time as head of the Kansas City police force often mentioned by those under his command.

Shortly after taking over, Smith instituted a weekly “Chief’s chat” every Wednesday morning for the command staff.

Now, the meetings are held every morning and include leadership down to the division level.

Kansas City Police Department senior command staff meeting.
Kansas City Police Department senior command staff meeting on March 25 to discuss strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. (Courtesy | Kansas City Police Department)

“We’re in constant communication with the field,” Garrett said. “We don’t want to be on the backside of the curve.”

The meeting allows for taking the pulse of situations around the city. But it also allows Smith to monitor the well-being of the force.

The mental health of officers is a serious concern.

Police, even in normal times, have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.  

Obviously, police accept some risk to their own lives each time they patrol. But the coronavirus increases those risks exponentially. And if they contract it, they could potentially pass it to their loved ones.

Hence, the intense focus on protocols to contain the spread within the department.

“We have to take care of ourselves because we have to be available to serve,” Cooley said.

Officers are often reminded of the outlets available to them, including a wellness unit and the peer support program that trained officers last year on how to counsel each other.

In addition, chaplains who work with the department are developing plans to offer a drive-through blessing for officers who desire such outreach.

The goal is to make it available at curbside, for officers to access during their shifts. They can roll through and move right on to answering calls for service.   

Many have noted that some crime is down. But the trend predates the stay-at-home order.

Even so, there remains deep concern that homicides and gun violence are continuing to occur at troubling rates.

Year-to-date, Kansas City homicides are up slightly. As of April 7, 2020, there were 42 murders, compared to 39 through the same date in 2019.

Such tragedies are proving even more horrifying for family members of the victims during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“People are getting shot and you can’t be at the hospital with them,” said Kymira Randolph of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.

With the courts slowing down, the sense that justice will be achieved is stalling as well, she said.

Many of the approaches that Ad Hoc has long relied on to help people grieve, such as prayer vigils and large church services, also aren’t possible under the stay-at-home order.

Funerals aren’t being held, or they are small family gatherings that don’t allow for a wider sharing of grief.

Normally, Ad Hoc tries to show up at crime scenes, to be a calming presence and a bridge for conversations between the police and the community.

They also canvass neighborhoods for leads. And the now closed Ad Hoc office space is where people are used to coming for help printing and distributing flyers seeking information about missing persons or those who have been murdered.

In response, the Ad Hoc staff is developing a webinar to rollout on Friday called “The Epidemic of Violence” for the community to engage with ideas about fighting crime during the pandemic.

“People are concerned about their future,” Randolph said. “Financially this is going to hurt the folks on the bottom.”

She’s hopeful that longstanding programing, like their efforts to develop block watches, will assist police now.

Ad Hoc is facing the reality that is confronting law enforcement not only in Kansas City, but nationwide _ social distancing is incompatible with much police work. And a pandemic will test a community’s resilience.

“Everybody has to step up and do their part,” Cooley said. “That is the only way we will get through this with minimal consequences.”

Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer.

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