April 15, 2020


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


The Role of First-Line Supervisors During the COVID-19 Pandemic Response

In any critical incident, first-line supervisors play a crucial role in organizing resources and managing personnel. The COVID-19 pandemic is essentially a long-term critical incident that has created new challenges for sergeants, especially guarding the health and safety of their officers and deputies.

Recently PERF spoke to a group of first-line supervisors about how they are approaching these challenges.


Five Key Takeaways

  1. It’s important for supervisors to ensure police visibility within the community.
  2. Supervisors are directing their officers to educate the community about stay-at-home orders and other restrictions and to gain voluntary compliance, as opposed to taking enforcement actions.
  3. Because the situation is so fluid, communication takes on added importance to ensure that front-line officers and deputies have the information and support they need.
  4. Supervisors need to focus in new ways on the physical and mental wellness of their officers and deputies.
  5. Supervisors are encountering new challenges, such as ensuring their own personnel are following the rules on social distancing. They also need to feel empowered to “see the big picture” and make common-sense decisions that support officer safety and public safety, even if the decisions would be unorthodox in normal times.


Maintaining Visibility Within the Community

First-line supervisors are focusing on maintaining the visibility of patrol units in the community, especially in grocery stores, public parks, COVID-19 testing sites, and other areas where people may congregate.

Supervisors understand that police visibility not only maintains order, but also helps to provide the public with a sense of comfort and safety.

Camden County, NJ  Sergeant Ralph Thornton:  “About 40 officers and I have been reallocated to the NRT (Neighborhood Response Team). Our main priority is to perform high-visibility and directed patrols, assess COVID-19 issues in park checks, conduct normal city street checks, and advise the community on the COVID-19 pandemic and procedures to stay safe. It’s a job that requires a lot of empathy and sympathy.”

Camden County, NJ Captain Kevin Lutz:  “We’re thinking of creative ways to reallocate our narcotics unit, giving the general appearance that they’re still out and about and doing their functions, so the criminal element doesn’t get comfortable.”

Riverside, CA Sergeant Erich Feimer:  “Our officers are doing extra patrols at city parks, shopping centers, and schools. We have a drive-through testing site in the city, and we provide security there. School districts have been handing out Chromebooks to students for them to continue online schooling, and we’ve been assisting with traffic control there.”

Palm Beach County, FL Sheriff’s Sergeant Kevin Marks:  “We’re not responding to as many calls as we used to.  I’m trying to keep our deputies motivated to keep driving through neighborhoods and giving the community the visual that we’re out there and still patrolling.”


Educating the Community, Not Just Enforcing the Law

Police officers and sheriffs’ deputies have been given responsibility for ensuring compliance with stay-at-home orders and other restrictions on people’s activities. In some cases, they are dealing with community members who are frustrated.

Most police chiefs and sheriffs have adopted strategies that rely mainly on voluntary compliance with these restrictions. First-line supervisors play a crucial role in communicating those strategies to their personnel, and getting them to focus on educating the public about the importance of social distancing practices, instead of issuing summonses or making arrests.

Tucson, AZ Sergeant Alon Hackett:  “Our department’s policy right now is that we are providing education to people and requesting voluntary compliance with state government orders. Unless there are other laws being broken, if we see a group of 10 people hanging out in a park, we explain to them why they should be social-distancing and the dangers associated with not following the orders, and we ask for voluntary compliance. If they don’t want to comply, we’re going to write a report.”

Camden County, NJ Sergeant Ralph Thornton:  “Our officers have an extensive background in PERF’s ICAT training (Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics), so they are familiar with de-escalation techniques when dealing with the public. We work in a city where a lot of the residents don’t have large houses or backyards, so they may be more likely to congregate in public places.”


Communication and Management of Information

Almost every day, police chiefs and sheriffs are sending out new COVID-19 guidance, based on updates from public health agencies and other government officials. First-line supervisors are tasked with pushing this information out to the front-line officers and deputies, and ensuring that they understand the guidance and are acting on it.

Metropolitan Nashville, TN Sergeant Robert Weaver:  “As front-line supervisors, we’re constantly dealing with new information. Just today the CDC came out with new recommendations about essential personnel. This is a constantly evolving situation, so it really helps when sergeants disseminate clear communication through the department. Everybody is trying to drink out of a firehose with the changes that are happening.”

Tucson, AZ Sergeant Alon Hackett:  “The chief sends the department updates several times a week. It’s the job of the first-line supervisors to be on top of it, understand it, and explain it to the officers. The supervisor’s job is to make sure officers understand the chief’s message, and that they remain safe.”

Vancouver, BC Sergeant Raj Mander:  “Our biggest responsibility is managing information flow and setting up our members with resources to answer their questions. Different members from our organization, from the chief on down, are providing messages and new updates. We have access to a website that highlights some of the changes. Whether they’re on-duty or off, they can log in and get that information.

“In some respects, sergeants’ role now is more about managing our people and the questions and concerns they have, and less about dealing with the public’s issues. Our priority focus has been on our members.”


Ensuring the Physical and Mental Wellness of Front-Line Personnel

Under normal circumstances, first-line supervisors play a dual role: overseeing the day-to-day work of their officers and deputies, and watching out for their physical and mental well-being.

This latter responsibility has taken on added importance during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the physical safety of officers and deputies. First-line supervisors are focused on ensuring their personnel are following safety protocols and have access to PPE, testing, and medical advice when needed. At the same time, first-line supervisors are aware of the mental stresses of the job right now, and that officers and deputies are concerned about their families.

New York City Sergeant John Flynn:  “One of the toughest challenges for us is dealing with officers who worked the day before with an officer who is infected, and getting those officers the support they need. That means rapid testing, the ability to be isolated or separated, and making arrangements for them to work from home if appropriate.

“Ultimately, most officers are not going to be comfortable unless they’re getting direct guidance from a medical professional about whether they are okay to stay at work or should be separated for some period of time.

“On almost every type of issue, officers take direct guidance from their front-line supervisors. But now we’re encouraging all officers to take their guidance from medical professionals.  As much as this is a crisis for the police department, this is a medical crisis. As first-line supervisors, we have to be mindful of that.”

Camden County, NJ Sergeant Ralph Thornton:  “We started having sergeants and the body-worn camera unit perform audits of footage throughout the day, specifically related to safety issues regarding COVID-19. We review any assignments where officers might have interactions with the public, to ensure they’re adhering to the COVID-19 protocols. This is for purposes of officer education and safety, not discipline.”

Oakland, CA Sergeant Bryan Hubbard:  “Our daily briefings in the past used to be 10 to 15 minutes, and now they’re turning into hour-long therapy sessions. We’re dealing more with family issues than anything. Inevitably, an officer is going to come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, and that’s causing concern at home.

“We have a full-time clinician who is part of our Police Officers Association. Many times we have allowed an officer just to remove him or herself and go visit the clinician. We have pastors who are connected to a lot of churches in Oakland, who make themselves available 24/7 to deal with these issues. A lot of officers put on a strong front that ‘everyone’s okay,’ but the families need to talk to someone, and we facilitate that too.”


New Challenges for First-Line Supervisors

First-line supervisors told PERF that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating new challenges. On one hand, sergeants are having to monitor officers’ behavior more closely to ensure they are abiding by social distancing guidelines. At the same time, supervisors have to feel empowered to be flexible and use their common sense in new ways to support public health.

Palm Beach County, FL Sheriff’s Sergeant Kevin Marks“Sometimes you have to be a little more strict than you would normally be.  Some deputies are still meeting up, to help each other with paperwork or get a bite to eat together. As a front-line supervisor, that’s not something I would normally have on the radar, but now I have to.”

Oakland, CA Sergeant Bryan Hubbard:  “It’s important for supervisors to feel they can make the best decisions. To help keep our officers safe, we want to take more reports over the phone. But our policies haven’t been rewritten on that. I’m very proud of the supervisors who aren’t afraid to say, ‘We can do a phone report on that,’ even if it’s something we wouldn’t normally do.”


PERF’s Critical Incident Response Toolkit for First-Line Supervisors

With support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, PERF is developing a Critical Incident Response Toolkit for First-Line Supervisors.

If your agency has policies, checklists, resource guides, or other materials that you think may be appropriate for the toolkit, please contact Dan Alioto at PERF at [email protected].


Updates on Yesterday’s Report on Masks

In response to PERF’s COVID-19 Report yesterday about use of masks and other PPE, we received the following comments:

Longmont, CO:  Deputy Chief Jeffrey Satur of Longmont, CO Public Safety told us:

“I wanted to remind agencies around the country that a full-faced Air Purifying Respirator or gas mask, likely in everyone’s riot control inventory, offers better protection than an N-95 mask.  Longmont has provided all our officers with N-95 masks, surgical masks and homemade cloth masks, but in cases of CPR or death investigations, we are encouraging officers to use their APR/full face gas mask, because it offers far better filtration; the mask protects the face, eyes, and nose from hand contact during use; and it is easy to clean.” 

New York City:  The NYPD sent us a new Operations Order, which takes effect on April 14, noting that NYPD is required under a new state order to provide all uniformed and civilian members with face coverings.

“Members are not permitted to wear homemade masks [such as] scarves, bandanas, handkerchiefs, etc.,” the order states. Any NYPD members who do not already have face coverings are directed to contact their supervisor.

The order also notes that “all essential businesses that are open and operating at this time must provide face coverings to their employees free of charge.”


Engaging Your Community During COVID-19

To better understand how agencies are connecting with their communities while following social distancing recommendations, PERF is asking members to please click on this link and complete a brief questionnaire. We may share your responses in an upcoming edition of our PERF Daily COVID-19 Report.


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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