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Police Responses to Covid-19

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

Last Updated: July 8, 2020
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.

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 acheived 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.

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.

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.

Training/PPE

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.

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.