June 10, 2020


For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF interviewed police executives from four cities that are not yet on the downward side of their COVID-19 curves. We asked them to discuss how they are managing their COVID-19 response while also managing demonstrations about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.


Key Takeaways:

-- Not all cities are seeing the COVID-19 threat in their rear-view mirrorThe pandemic is producing a secondary wave in some locations.

-- It’s difficult or impossible to maintain COVID social distancing protocols while managing demonstrations that involve large crowds of peopleBut one way that police can help is to hand out masks at demonstrations.  And police can still maintain their protocols on officers using masks and other PPE during demonstrations.

-- COVID testing is very helpful:   The availability of large-scale COVID testing with prompt results has helped departments to keep officers working, without lengthy quarantine periods following a potential exposure.

-- Early action months ago is paying off nowEarly implementation of COVID protections has helped reduce infections in some police departments, even where infections are high in the general population.


Tempe, AZ  Chief and PERF President Sylvia Moir:

Multiple Crises Can Be Disquieting, But Police Are Adept at Being Calm in Chaos

COVID was unprecedented. To overlay it with the George Floyd crisis is unlike anything we’ve experienced in the history of modern policing.  A couple weeks ago, police were the essential personnel, putting ourselves in harm’s way to safeguard people against COVID. In a moment, we became the vilified profession.  And most of us now are engaged in a third crisis: the looming budget deficit.

In Arizona, we’re still surging in the number of COVID cases, so we’re increasingly concerned. Our cases continue to increase. Our peak is projected to be on June 11.

We were at the point in the COVID pandemic where we had normalized our personal health safeguards, including equipment and how we engaged with people. Social distancing was part of our routine. But suddenly we were faced with the need to protect people’s Constitutional right to assemble in demonstrations, and the close confines of doing that flew in the face of what we had been doing under COVID.

To address the civil unrest, we quickly stood up a multi-agency command center in Tempe and opened it up to the whole East Valley, where I serve. That put everyone in the room together. We could share intel, surge resources to where they were needed, and develop relationships to address these multiple concerns.

We put our entire department on standby. That was a move to ready the entire organization should we have to surge. We had enough resources, experience, and competence.

Not a lot of the protesters who were hell-bent on criminal activity came to Tempe, but we have had protests.

While all of this is stressful, it’s manageable, because we have clarity of purpose and we did the tough work before the crisis hit.

Police are adept at being calm in chaos. Having multiple crises laid at our feet can be disquieting, but I’ve found that police are the calm force to get through the chaos and bring a clarity of thought and purpose.


Yakima, WA Chief Matt Murray:

We Had 7 Straight Days of Demonstrations, But for Us, COVID Is Still by Far the Bigger Issue

COVID cases are surging in Yakima. The first American COVID death occurred in Washington State, but that was on the west side of the state near Seattle. We were told that Yakima would be part of a second wave, as COVID worked its way inland. 

And that’s exactly what happened.  We were behind the curve in getting the epidemic, but once it hit, it spread very quickly. We’ve now had 4,665 cases and 101 deaths. And there have been 300 new cases in the last day.

We have a very high number of migrant workers who work closely together picking apples. But the average age of a newly infected person in Yakima is between 20 and 29, so we have a lot of cases, but not as many deaths as cities where the COVID cases involve older people.

We have not had a single officer infected, or a single person in our jail infected. I believe these results are because we took some strong measures very quickly, back at the end of February. Our jail typically houses about 80, but now it’s down to 25.

We had seven straight days of demonstrations, but they were remarkably peaceful. There’s been zero violence and zero criminal activity.

I did not want the police to become the face of the COVID epidemic. We resisted being the people going to parties and writing citations about social distancing. Our posture was always, “If the health department asks for help, I’ll be there. But I’m not going to proactively go out and seek to issue citations and enforce COVID violations.” Some people don’t like that stance, but I think it helped when we got to the demonstrations. The protests were not about our police department. That made our job much easier.

For us, COVID is still by far the bigger issue.


Elkhart, IN Chief Chris Snyder:

Quick Testing Has Helped Us Get Officers Back to Work

Indiana is mostly on the downward part of the curve, but Elkhart City isn’t even close to being on a downward slope.  Just this past weekend we had over 250 positive cases in Elkhart County.  We are testing a lot of people, but our positive test rate is well above the state average. We’re hoping that we don’t get sent backwards on the phases of reopening because we’re seeing so many cases.

We’ve had a couple of officers test positive. At one point, one officer had a positive test and it took out 25 police officers, which is about a third of our police department. Luckily, we were able to get them tested and nobody else was positive, so we were able to get right back to work.

We had one rally, which was peaceful. The organizer invited law enforcement to be a part of it and invited me to speak at the rally. We had three officers walk around and interact with the community. We handed out masks, because we knew social distancing was not going to happen.

We have another walk coming up Thursday. They’ve invited us to be a part of it, and worked with us on the route and the timing. It’s been pretty amazing how we’ve been able to work with our community during tough times.

We’ve had a lot of other protests around us, and some law enforcement agencies have been unprepared. They’re either lacking equipment, training, or other resources. It concerns us to know that some of our surrounding agencies, who we thought we’d be able to call for help, aren’t properly trained or equipped. I’m hoping that this will get some people to dust off their procedure manuals and re-evaluate what equipment they have, especially as we come into budget season.


Burlington, NC Assistant Chief Brian Long:

We Faced a Threat of an Attack on the Police Department During a Demonstration

We’ve yet to hit our local peak, and we’re continuing to see cases increase. Two weeks ago, about 7% of tests in Burlington came back positive. Over the last couple of days, it’s moved up to 10% of all tests.

One of our retirement centers was hit very, very hard early on. That has tapered off, and recently 98% of all positive tests have been community-based. We went into “Phase 2” here in North Carolina about two weeks ago, so we think we’re seeing the community spread as things have started to slowly open back up.

We haven’t had violence or property damage during protests, but we have had large crowds gathering. We did not change any of our COVID-related response policies. We already had a mask policy in place when interacting with the public, and that remained.

We faced an unusual situation last Sunday when we learned that, during a rally, a group was headed to the police department to actively riot and try to take over the police department. It was challenging to try to organize one defensive front and one collaborative community effort at the rally. Fortunately, the riot didn’t manifest and the rally was peaceful.

It works well for us when we engage directly up-front with those we want to host events, instead of responding to the events after they’ve already started.

Trying to balance these two emergencies at the same time is unprecedented in law enforcement, at least during my tenure. It’s been challenging, but staff seem to be holding up well through both COVID and the overall stress of the protests.

We’ve relied on our chaplain staff. They’ve been consistently sending messages to staff.

We’ve also used critical stress debriefing in some instances when staff have had potential exposures. We use that model, but we bring people together electronically. And in some cases, we have had small groups get together in large spaces to let them work through the stresses that they’re faced with. Those two things seem to be appreciated by staff. 


The PERF Critical Issues 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 this work.

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