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Police Responses to Covid-19

Police responses to Covid-19 should focus on community safety and reducing arrests.

Last Updated: October 25, 2021
Published: March 27, 2020

As communities across the country are struggling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, police departments are being asked to rise to the challenge of helping to promote community health and safety while maintaining law and order. As part of these efforts, police departments and local prosecutors are making needed policy changes to reduce the number of people who become involved with the criminal justice system. For detailed information about police department reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic, see this tracker from the COVID19 Policing Project.

Arrests/Alternatives to Arrest

Brennan Center Recommendations: Police should issue warnings whenever possible. In the case of more severe infractions, police should issue a summons or a ticket in lieu of making an arrest absent an immediate threat to public safety.

  • The Police Department of the San Francisco Bay Area has taken an “education over enforcement” approach, preferring to warn people rather than to arrest them.
  • In Chicago, the police department directed officers that certain low-level and nonviolent crimes can be handled via citation and misdemeanor summons as opposed to physical arrest.
  • Philadelphia and Chicago are some of larger cities where parking officials will not issue tickets unless there’s a public safety risk, such as a blocked fire hydrant or intersection.
  • Fort Worth, Denver, and Philadelphia are some of the cities where police are reducing arrests for low-level crimes, such as burglaries and drug offenses. Suspects are being released with a warrant ordering them to return for processing once the crisis is over.
  • In Illinois, Rockford police officers were told to issue a "notice to appear" and not perform a custodial arrest for misdemeanor crimes.
  • In Montana, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin has asked local law enforcement to cite-and-release individuals for nonviolent misdemeanors to prevent the entrance of Covid-19 into the jails.
  • Nashville Police Officers were asked to maximize their discretion to use cite-and-release instead of arresting individuals for misdemeanor offenses. 
  • The DC Police Department has expanded the types of illegal activities that qualify for citations instead of arrests. 
  • Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney is encouraging other sheriffs to use electronic monitoring and early release to decrease jail populations in response to Covid-19. He is also encouraging local law enforcement partners to look for alternatives to incarceration, including cite-and-release.
  • Through law enforcement collaboration, spearheaded by Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, the Middlesex County, MA jail population has dropped by 100 individuals, a 15 percent decline. They achieved this by reviewing bail and increasing electronic monitoring. 
  • The Washtenaw County Jail in Washtenaw County, Michigan is operating at below half of its capacity, after the sheriff’s office instituted measures to limit the spread of Covid-19. These protocols are in line with Gov. Whitmer's executive order to protect jail population. The sheriff's office also incorporated feedback from a local advocacy group. 
  • According to the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts, arrests across Kentucky have dropped from 700 to 150 arrests a day, as police officers change arrest practices in response to Covid-19.
  • The Lincoln County, Oregon Sheriff’s Office in reduced their county jail population to 83 people by reducing arrests. Since March 14, the Sheriff's office has only admitted people who were arrested for “serious crimes’ or people who “pose an extreme risk to the community."
  • As of April 20, nearly half of those arrested by Santa Barbara County Sheriff's office since an April 6 statewide emergency order (which sets a bail amount of $0 for all felonies and misdemeanors, and even some probation violations, with the exception of "serious" crimes) have been released with citations.
  • On April 21, San Marcos became the first city in Texas to adopt a cite-and-release policy in the form of a law for certain low-level offenses.
  • Middlesex, MA Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian announced that, as of May 5, the population under supervision by the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office has dropped to below 600 individuals – a nearly 25 percent drop since mid-March. The Sheriff attributed the decline to an increase in electronic monitoring and collaboration with the District Attorney on bail reviews. 
  • Despite the continued risk of Covid-19, in response to potential gun violence over the weekend of July 4, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown announced on June 30 that Chicago police officers would round up and mass arrest teenagers hanging around “drug corners.” An additional 1,200 officers were to be deployed to the lowest-income sections of the city to carry out these arrests.
  • In Milwaukee, 78% of residents arrested for violating Milwaukee’s stay-at-home order were black, despite the fact that only 39% of the city’s residents are black. Black and Latinx populations in Milwaukee have also been hit hardest by Covid-19, leading officials and activists to question the health benefits of arresting black and Latinx people disproportionately.
  • In response to the pandemic, New Jersey state troopers have been instructed to issue summons for minor infractions, rather than take people into custody.
  • At the Dane County Sheriff's Office in Wisconsin, sheriff Dane Mahoney told his officers to "look for every opportunity to not bring people to jail" as an attempt to limit the chance of community spread through the local jail.
  • On February 3, San Bernardino Chief of Police Eric McBride released a video on the department's public Facebook page, criticizing "decriminalization campaigns" and "early release policies" that have been implemented to saved lives of incarcerated people, particularly those being held pretrial, during the pandemic. The posting reflects the still-pervasive mindset among police departments that neither Covid-19, nor the ongoing social and political movements against overcriminalization/police targeting of Black communities, should change their policies or practices.
  • On March 14, officials in police departments around San Mateo County, California explained how they have been facilitating Covid-19 guidelines throughout the county during the pandemic. The departments have focused on education rather than enforcement, which they found to be an effective method for reducing pushback from community members.
  • As of April 3, some police departments in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties in Maine have continued to limit arrests in order to limit the jail population during the pandemic, but others are beginning to return to their pre-pandemic protocols.
  • On April 6, Maine state police announced that they will no longer be limiting enforcement of minor traffic violations in response to the pandemic. The decision comes after the department received public concerns about driving safety.
  • On October 13, Austin’s Office of Police Oversight released a new report instructing the Austin Police Department to rewrite its policies concerning use of force to emphasize de-escalation.

Brennan Center Recommendation: Planned, or scheduled, arrests should be delayed if at all possible unless the person to be arrested poses an immediate threat to public safety.

  • Arizona’s Tucson police officers were ordered to cite and release as frequently as possible, use the long-form process for nonviolent felonies, and not serve misdemeanor warrants unless for public safety reasons, such as domestic abuse.
  • Commissioner Danielle Outlaw of the Philadelphia Police Department informed commanders that officers are to delay arrests in crimes ranging from narcotics to theft to prostitution.  
  • To decrease the jail population, the Washington, D.C., police department’s use of citation-and- release has been expanded to a number of other crimes.  
  • The DeKalb County Marshal's Office in Atlanta is following its continuity of operations plan developed years ago for a pandemic. On March 17, the marshal ordered staff to suspend all evictions and noncritical field operations, such as civil process delivery and warrant apprehensions.
  • Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin has asked local law enforcement to cite-and-release individuals for nonviolent misdemeanors instead of bringing them to the jails to prevent the entrance of Covid-19 into the jails.
  • Steve Conrad has said the LMPD will stop responding in-person to non-violent criminal incidents which require a police report, and instead will take a police report over the phone to better protect its officers and the community.
  • On March 31, the Auburn police chief announced that he would be lifting Covid-related booking restrictions starting April 1. 
  • As of April 11, the Daviess County Sheriff's Department in Kentucky had resumed serving warrants after pausing the practice in response to Covid-19 in order to limit jail populations.

Brennan Center Recommendation: Police should focus their efforts on community and problem-solving: for example, ensuring that the elderly and infirm are safe and working to help ensure that children are safe while school is not in session.

  • In Los Angeles, the police department is deploying half of the detectives to “high-visibility patrols” aimed at reassuring an anxious public as some businesses close and grocery stores attract long lines.
  • The Fairfield Police Department in Fairfield, Connecticut, launched a social media campaign called "Law and Order to Go," which highlights and encourages police to order lunch for curbside pickup from Fairfield restaurants, promoting small businesses that are still open and offering delivery.  
  • Since Friday, March 20, the Fort Worth Police Officers Association has been supporting local businesses by purchasing hundreds of bulk meals daily for police officers in every patrol division.
  • Bridgeport police are now asking for nonviolent, traffic, and civil reports to be made online to reduce law enforcement interaction so that police can shift focus to assaults and theft in businesses as panic-buying increases.
  • On April 9, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced that they’re partnering with the city’s largest landlord, Veritas Investments, to provide temporary housing for survivors of domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce has lowered the local jail population by 25 percent by releasing people who had less than 90 days left in incarceration. 
  • Starting April 27, Houston police officers and Harris County Sheriff’s deputies will distribute masks and largely avoid issuing fines for people who fail to comply with the order requiring residents to cover their faces.
  • When new coronavirus restrictions went into effect in October, New York City police officers issued 62 tickets and more than $150,000 in fines during the first weekend of enforcement.
  • In January 2021, the Pennsylvania State Police announced that they will "distribute flyers containing COVID-19 mitigation information to travelers and commercial vehicles," and issue citations on a case-by-case basis to individuals violating Covid-19 restrictions.
  • On January 1, the city of Dallas released a memorandum that directed police officer not to be dispatched in certain types of 911 calls like car thefts, criminal mischief and child custody disputes. The intention of the directive was to limit Covid-19 exposure and make the department more efficient; however, the memorandum was quickly rescinded after it leaked to the public with an unfavorable response.
  • On February 18, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot faced criticism from activists for allocating coronavirus relief money toward overtime pay for the city's police department. Activists are particularly angry about this decision because the funding could have been used to subsidize housing assistance, vaccine distribution, and business support, and the time for which police are being compensated using these funds was for doing work such as wellness checks, which would have been better suited to other departments like social services.
  • In Florida, an officer was fired for mocking a co-worker's fear of contracting Covid-19 while on the job (as well as physically harassing her during the encounter). The incident represents the latest evolution of certain police officers downplaying the pandemic, or ignoring their department's guidance regarding social distancing and PPE.
  • On March 15, San Juan police began planning to add more police in popular tourist areas to address aggressive tourist behavior. Despite pandemic conditions, Puerto Rico has seen many U.S. travelers during its peak tourist season.

Training, PPE, and Vaccinations

Brennan Center Recommendation: Police departments should provide their officers and staff with training and appropriate protective gear, in accordance with public health recommendations, when on duty. This also ensures that they minimize any health risk to those they interact with.

  • The Lyndhurst Police Department in New Jersey said that officers who have to make in-person visits will keep a "safe distance" and refrain from shaking hands.
  • The Los Angeles Police Department has stated that all patrol officers and officers likely to come into contact with the virus have been issued a kit consisting of multiple sets of gloves, a bacteria protection mask, and goggles.  
  • The Miami Police Department set up screening stations at all its police districts. Employees must pass through the screening stations before coming to work, and employees are issued a colored wristband to show that they've been cleared.  
  • The Chicago Police Department is keeping its medical office open 24 hours a day, rather than the usual 8 hours a day, to better track the health of its officers.  
  • Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best worked with medical experts and partners at the Seattle Fire Department to certify their EMTs and medics to administer the testing procedures for Covid-19 in their own Seattle First Responder testing site. This was in response to protecting its employees who constantly risk exposure while putting public safety first in their jobs. It is also preventative, as they would find anyone affected quickly and remove them from active duty to stop spreading of the virus.
  • Despite civilians donating hundreds of handmade masks in response to Chicago PD’s complaints about PPE shortages, police officers in Chicago (as well as across the country) have been seen without masks consistently for the first few weeks of June, even in places where officials have mandated they be worn.
  • Many police officers in Philadelphia are refusing to wear masks, even after Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw issued multiple directives to encourage mask wearing across ranks. The city government has not made any moves to punish those who refuse to wear PPE.
  • The Chicago Police Department has resumed its recruit training as of July 6. The Department will institute temperature checks and provide hand sanitizer when trainees enter, mandate mask and glove use, and incorporate virtual learning to limit contact.
  • In July, a Chicago Police Department lieutenant argued that masks impede the police's ability to do their job, and that supervisors within the department have not and will not enforce mask mandates for officers of the law.
  • By August, police officers in cities across the country were regularly documented without masks on, both on regular patrols and at protests.
  • In Florida, Sheriff Billy Woods announced in August that his deputies would not permitted to wear masks on duty, unless they were placed in schools, hospitals, the jail, or the local courthouse. In the same announcement, he declared that anyone who walks into the sheriff's office wearing a mask would be required to remove it, contrary to any orders mandating mask wearing in public.
  • In Austin, Texas, police officers are in charge of enforcing mask mandates and educating the public, but numerous complaints were lodged during the summer and fall of 2020 against officers who refused to wear masks while interacting with the public.
  • A national survey of first responders found that while a majority of public safety personnel were required to wear masks on duty, roughly a third of respondents were not provided masks by their departments. Little over 40 percent of respondents felt that masks were an effective tool for reducing the spread of Covid-19. 
  • Despite being required to wear masks since April, a number of Capitol Police officers were documented maskless or improperly wearing face coverings during the insurrection on January 6th. During the incident, many rioters and Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks, exposing all people inside the Capitol complex to a super-spreader event.
  • In the weeks after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Complex, over three dozen Capitol Police officers tested positive for Covid-19. By January 24, 38 officers had reported a positive Covid-19 test, likely caused by the mass of largely unmasked people invading the Capitol grounds.
  • On March 13, a spokesperson for the Lynchberg, Virginia police department reported that 43 officers had tested positive for Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Approximately 1/4 of the department's employees have been vaccinated so far, and department officials are encouraging other officers to take the vaccine.
  • By May 3, three months after Chicago began offering Covid-19 vaccines to police officers, data from the Chicago Police Department show that only about a quarter of department employees have gotten at least one shot at a city-run site. This trend follows the expressed interest of city police officers, of which roughly one-third indicated in a January survey that they were interested in getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.
  • In the second week of May, only 28 percent of the Columbus Division of Police's 1,800 sworn personnel had received a Covid-19 vaccine, either full or partial.
  • The South Futon Police Department in Georgia reported in mid-May that fewer than 50% of its employees had accepted opportunities to become fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • By May 19, only 40 percent of the NYPD's 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees had received any dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, an acceptance rate almost 20 percent less than the percentage of adults overall in the city.
  • As of June 7, 2021, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, “from mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.”
  • According to a California survey taken in June 2021, the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office has vaccinated 66 percent of its employees, the San Jose Police Department has at least 53 percent of employees vaccinated, the Palo Alto Police Department has at least 58 percent of employees vaccinated, and Mountain View Police Department has 73 percent of employees vaccinated. In contrast, as of July 8th, 6% of Santa Clara County residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated. Considering that law enforcement had early access to the vaccine, their vaccination numbers are only somewhat encouraging.
  • As of June 19th, 2021, 52 percent of LAPD officers are partially vaccinated, while only about 30% of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department is vaccinated.
  • As of June 21st, 2021, Las Vegas PD is requiring new hires to have been vaccinated against Covid-19, but no mandate yet for those already employed by the department. Only 39 percent of current employees at the department are vaccinated.
  • As of June 21st, 2021, only 36 percent Atlanta police officers have received their Covid-19 vaccinations.
  • As of June 21st, 2021, Ohio’s Columbus division, which is also the largest force in the state, has only 28 percent of its officers vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • On August 18, the NYPD announced that it will require all police officers to either get vaccinated or wear a mask while on duty and submit to regular testing. A citywide order will go into effect on September 13, requiring similar measures for all city employees (including police officers).
  • On September 13th, a group of employees from the Los Angeles Police Department filed a federal lawsuit over the city's vaccination requirement, claiming that it violates their constitutional rights. A few days later, data was released showing that thousands of department employees are pursuing medical and religious exemptions from the order requiring city workers to get vaccinated against Covid-19. 
  • On September 14th, New Jersey State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan announced that 22 New Jersey Police officers died of Covid-19 the week before. Despite the rise in cases, the state police unions continue to oppose vaccine requirements.
  • On September 29th, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced that full Covid-19 vaccinations will be required for all employees of the county's executive branch by December 1st. 
  • On October 5th, the San Jose Police Department updated its Covid-19 vaccination policy to allow workers a one week grace period before being placed on unpaid suspension for not being vaccinated. Unvaccinated employees are subject to twice weekly Covid-19 tests and must work staggered hours to mitigate potential spread of the coronavirus.
  • On October 12, the City of Denver reported that dozens of first responders have quit over the city and county’s vaccine mandates. An additional 30 employees are facing termination for not complying with the vaccine requirement after discipline hearings began this week.
  • On October 13, a memo regarding the U.S. Capitol Police Department's division responsible for protecting lawmakers stated that staff must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by December 6. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger stated that failure to be vaccinated by the deadline will result in be reassignment.
  • On October 18, Chicago city officials reported that roughly 35 percent of officers did not report their vaccination status by the city's deadline on October 15. Those 4,5000 officers will be placed on no-pay status and will be required to undergo Covid-19 testing twice a week.
  • On October 18th, the Washington State Police announced that nearly 95 percent of officers have complied with its vaccination policy, while the 5 percent of officer who remain unvaccinated will be placed on unpaid leave. 
  • On October 19, the Allegheny County Deputy Sheriff’s Association in Pennsylvania filed an unfair labor practice suit against Allegheny County for its Covid-19 vaccine mandate, rather than encourage officers to comply with the order.
  • On October 20, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all police officers, firefighters and other municipal workers must get vaccinated against Covid-19 or be placed on unpaid leave. The mandate has a November 1 deadline for getting the first vaccine dose except for people working on Rikers Island, who will be subject to the mandate on December 1. The extended timeline for corrections staff on Rikers is due to concerns over existing staffing shortages at the facility.

Additional Resources

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has put together a centralized clearinghouse of resources related to Covid-19 that is updated constantly. Resources available include fact sheets, organizational readiness documents, policy considerations, and much more.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has put together a resources page for law enforcement that provides how agencies are responding, PERF Daily Covid-19 Reports, PERF publications on outbreaks, federal and international resources, and officer wellness resources.