April 14, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


COVID-19 Masks:  How They Differ, How to Get Them, and How to Use Them

For today’s Daily COVID-19 report, PERF spoke with 10 police executives about the issues they are facing regarding the use of masks by officers.  Following is a summary of what they told us:


Different masks have different purposes.

There are three basic types of masks being used by police:  Cloth face coverings and surgical masks reduce the chances that the person wearing the mask will spread droplets into the air, especially when coughing or sneezing.

So those types of masks protect the people around the person wearing the mask.

By contrast, N-95 masks offer a degree of protection for the person wearing the mask.

Police agencies are providing all three types of masks to their officers to wear. 

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore explained the difference:

“The N-95 masks afford the officers protection from a person who is ‘shedding’ the virus. The surgical masks and the cloth face coverings do not.  The surgical masks and face coverings offer some protection to others from droplets that the officer may be distributing. The surgical masks and cloth face coverings reduce the chances of the officer infecting someone else. The N-95 masks are the only ones that offer the officers any protections.”

Chief Moore produced a video for LAPD employees about the need for masks to protect officers and the public, and related issues.


So police use the different masks for different situations.

Police agencies increasingly are requiring (or strongly encouraging) officers to wear surgical masks any time they are out in public, interacting with people, and also when they are in a 2-person patrol car, and when they are indoors near other people. 

“Any time they are going to have contact or are likely to have contact with a citizen, we have them put one on, and that applies to traffic enforcement as well,” said Kansas City, MO Police Major Steve Young.

Agencies generally are reserving the use of N-95 masks for situations in which officers are responding to a call for service and expect that they may need to be in close contact with a person who might be COVID-19-positive.

“We have N-95 masks, and all our public-facing employees are required to wear them during any calls for service or for any interaction with the public, or when they’re out with the public on a foot patrol,” said Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Sullivan.

“We strongly encourage the officers to wear the surgical masks in general when they’re out with the public, or riding in a car with their partner, or are inside the station,” said Assistant Chief Robert Contee of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC. “When they respond to calls for service, especially if they’re dealing with someone who could be infected, they don their N-95 mask.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo explained further:

“We’re requiring all officers to wear the surgical masks inside our facilities, and the police cars. We’re trying to limit the number of 2-officer cars, but when there are 2 officers in a car, they have to wear their surgical masks. And when officers are going to a call for service, they have to wear their N-95 masks, because our health authority wants us to operate under the assumption that everyone we come in contact with is potentially COVID-positive. They also have to wear eye protection or goggles and the latex gloves.”

Austin, TX Police Chief Brian Manley said:

“Effective April 5, we required officers to wear the mask anytime they are out in contact with the public. The N-95s are reserved for calls where you expect that you may come into contact with someone who is COVID-positive, and the surgicals or the cloth masks are what you wear daily. We’ve also issued eye protection, more to keep officers from unintentionally touching their eyes.

“We are cautioning officers not to have a false sense of security from the cloth or surgical masks; you need the N-95 to actually be protected if you come into contact with a COVID-positive person.”


There is some variation in whether agencies require officers to wear masks whenever they are out in public. 

Yakima, WA Police Chief Matt Murray recently sent a message to officers saying, “All employees are required to wear masks when outside your vehicle. This is consistent with the new CDC recommendations.”  He told PERF, “I immediately extended it inside the building, when employees are out of their work stations.”

Among the agencies that have not issued hard-and-fast orders requiring use of masks, many said their departments very strongly encourage it.


Many chiefs said that public “socialization” of masks is happening, and the public expects officers to wear masks.  

“People are watching to make sure that we are modeling the behavior that we’re expecting the community to display,” Chief Acevedo said.

“The community is very supportive. The only criticism we get about masks is if officers are not wearing masks,” said Chief Moore.

“I am expecting that today or tomorrow we will have mandatory orders from the mayor and the county judge that all people in Austin who are out in public will be wearing masks,” Chief Manley said. “It’s becoming the norm, which is knocking down the resistance that officers may have initially had.”

“The community is on board.  Most of them are wearing masks themselves, so everyone is familiar with this,” said Monterey, CA Assistant Police Chief Bill Clark.


And there is socialization within police agencies.

The more that officers see each other wearing masks, the less strange it seems.

“What I’ve seen in the past week is that it’s quickly becoming socialized, where officers are overcoming any feeling of awkwardness about wearing the masks,” Chief Moore said.


Officers in some cities also are becoming aware of how many of their colleagues have tested positive for the virus.

“We have about 75 employees who are COVID-positive, which has had an impact on officers wanting to wear the masks,” said Boston Police Superintendent James Hasson.“The peer pressure is really getting intense with the officers. You see someone without a mask, and the next thing you see 9 officers out in one station.”

“We have about 54 employees who have tested positive, so this is about helping officers to be safe as well as the community,” said Chief Moore.


Some departments are getting help from local businesses, local police foundations, and their unions.

“At the beginning, about 3 weeks ago, we only had enough to give each officer only one or two masks,” said Major Young of Kansas City. “But since then, through donations and our ability to purchase some, we’re in pretty good shape.

“Our Police Foundation put up money for masks, and also for hotel rooms for officers who are symptomatic,” said Chief Moore. The Los Angeles Police Protective League also created special cloth face coverings with its logo embossed on the front, which it will be distributing to its members in the next day or two, Moore said.  He produced a video for officers highlighting the assistance provided by the Foundation and the Protective League.


And police departments with plenty of PPE are sharing it with other agencies.

“Last week we got a large shipment of our surgical masks to supplement the N-95s,” said Superintendent Hasson.  “People and businesses have been very generous with us, so we’ve been able to donate masks to smaller departments.”


Some departments are handing out masks, or asking the public to put on a cloth mask of some kind when they respond to a call. 

Several police agencies told PERF that they hand out surgical masks to members of the public during calls for service. 

“We’re giving surgical masks to anyone we contact who may be symptomatic,” said Chief Moore.

If that isn’t feasible, officers can ask members of the public to create a cloth mask, such as a handkerchief worn like a bandana.

“We handle about 5,000 calls a day, so it’s a bit unrealistic to try to hand every 9-1-1- caller a mask,” said Chief Inspector Melvin Singleton of the Philadelphia Police Department. “So part of our protocol is to maintain social distancing and ask community members to don a mask or some kind of face covering.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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