June 4, 2020


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


In today’s COVID-19 Report, we hear from top police officials in Nashville, Baltimore, and Tucson about how officers are handling two crises simultaneously – the COVID pandemic, and demonstrations or rioting following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.


Key Takeaways

-- There’s a tremendous amount  of anger on the streets.  Police report levels of anger and frustration in their communities that they have never seen before. In part, this may be because the death of George Floyd is almost universally considered a gross criminal violation of the public trust; there is no room for debating it.

-- Police are trying to maintain COVID-19 protocols as much as possible, but often “the rules go out the window.”   As Tucson Assistant Chief Kevin Hall said, “You can’t really do social distancing on the skirmish line or when you’re piling 50 people onto a bus.”  Police leaders fear that the demonstrations will soon result in a new wave of COVID-19 infections among their officers and the public.

-- In some ways, officers find COVID-19 more difficult to handle than demonstrations.  Demonstrations and riots are extremely challenging. But at least officers have been trained on strategies and tactics for responding to these types of events. By contrast, everything about COVID response is new and unfamiliar.


Metropolitan Nashville Chief Steve Anderson:

There’s No Room for Debating the Death of George Floyd, And That Is Causing Great Anger

Saturday night we had a mass gathering. We geared up for it and actually overstaffed it, based on our experience in the past. But we turned out to be woefully understaffed.

The demonstration was peaceful. Then it turned into a march through the streets, which was peaceful and we knew would happen. Tourists and demonstrators were exchanging warm greetings.

Then an element of it turned really ugly. They marched a couple blocks over to the Central Precinct, and that’s when we had to deploy officers in our tactical gear. It was a standoff there for hours. Protesters were right up in the officers’ faces as the line was formed.

We were able to hold that ground. There was a lot of rock throwing, but little damage other than some spray painting and some damage to patrol cars.

Then a group broke off and started toward the courthouse. We can’t tell if they were organized or unorganized. They changed direction a couple times and spray-painted graffiti along the way. They broke the ground floor windows in the courthouse, made an entry in the backside, and did some vandalism and ransacking. They set fire to the mayor’s suite of offices. That’s when we had to deploy chemical spray to disperse the crowd and get the fire department in.

While we were tending to that, one group stayed in place while another went down the hill a couple blocks and marched down Broadway, smashing windows and doing a small amount of looting.

By that time, we had almost doubled our people, and we had Tennessee Highway Patrol and some relief from the National Guard.

There is another demonstration planned for Thursday. We don’t know how that is going to play out yet, but we’re gearing up for that.

What we’re seeing is that the criminal element is using demonstrators as cover. They’re using demonstrators to occupy us while they do their criminal acts – arson and vandalism.

This is the irony of this situation. There was a plaque erected on the front of the courthouse to memorialize civil rights actions that had taken place there in the 1960s. That was broken off the wall and used to smash windows. Yesterday we were able to arrest one of the people responsible for that.

When I look at any incident that has occurred across the nation the last few years other than this recent one in Minneapolis, there’s always room for debate one way or the other. This one hasn’t left any room for debate about right or wrong. From the emails I’m getting and what I hear from the people on the street, it has awoken a wide range of people who just seem to be very, very angry. I don’t know if economic challenges or being cooped up with stay-at-home orders contribute to that. But the anger is much wider and covers many more people than what I’ve seen in the past.

Chuck Wexler: How does the pandemic relate to these demonstrations?

Chief Anderson: At the start of the COVID crisis, we did everything we could to protect our officers and limit contact. Here in Tennessee there has been widespread infection in prisons and county jails, so we have done our best to guard against that by not taking people into custody for minor charges unless we absolutely had to.

We made 28 arrests Saturday night. I’m very concerned that contact during those arrests, and contact with these large crowds, may affect our officers and the public going forward. We have masses of people crowding together, and many are not wearing a mask.

Our officers are still required to wear masks anytime they cannot socially distance. Looking at the videos Saturday night, probably two-thirds of the people were wearing masks.


Baltimore Commissioner Michael Harrison:

We’re Trying to Maintain COVID Protections, But Sometimes It’s Impossible During a Demonstration

We had intensive planning with State Police and the National Guard in the early days of COVID, just in case we needed to deploy due to the scarcity of food or other resources. We anticipated we might get to that point due to a COVID-related disturbance. But this incident in Minneapolis has taken us in a different direction.

Saturday was our first major planned protest. We kept as many officers as possible out there in a plain uniform, not in riot gear. The protests started at 3 p.m., and we didn’t have officers out there in riot gear until about 10 p.m. Our officers exercised a lot of restraint, and so far things have gone well.

I have had many members of the faith community volunteer to go out, calm the tensions, and keep people from becoming violent. There were around 1,500 people there at the peak. Around 8:30-9:00 p.m., many protesters left, but unfortunately there was still a group there to violently protest. They were in our officers’ faces. We had a barricade designed to keep them away from the officers at City Hall and Police Headquarters.

Around 2:00 a.m., we had to read them a dispersal ordinance and dispersed the crowds by 2:30-3:00 a.m.

Sunday there were only a handful of people.

Monday we had around 3,000 people there at the peak. The protest started at 4:00 p.m., and at around 9:00 p.m. it started getting violent. The peaceful protesters left, leaving about 200 people. Many of those people began throwing things at the police.

One guy threw M-80 firecrackers at the officers on the line. The members of the community surrounded him and subdued him and dragged him to the police. It was amazing to see the community do that.

I think our actions Saturday, including the soft uniforms, the restraint the officers showed, and the way we set up the barricades to keep people away from police, helped us with the crowd on Monday.

I think our messaging, meeting with organizers, and having faith leaders and commanders in the crowd helped us.

Wexler: Are you still taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Commissioner Harrison:  Yes, but the demonstrations are affecting our protocols. Our officers are social distancing behind the barricades, but when we create a line in the street, we’re side-by-side, and people are in our faces. We’re wearing helmets, masks, and shields, but some protesters are not wearing masks. We’re coming into close proximity to people who aren’t wearing masks, so we’re vulnerable.

We’re exposed, and I think this is going to come back to haunt us at some point, whether it’s police or members of the community who are infected and have to quarantine. But we’re still trying to take every precaution against COVID-19.

Here’s a point I heard made during a conversation that resonated with me: Almost a fourth of the country is out of work and not getting paid, but the one profession that is almost guaranteed to continue working and get paid – policing – caused the incident in Minneapolis. One person caused it, but that person is within our profession. So people are mad at that officer and they’re mad at Minneapolis, but they’re also mad at all of us, because they see unfairness in being out of work while we’re still working and getting paid.

I’ve been trying to get that message throughout the organization, that we have to dig deep to understand why people are mad.


Tucson Assistant Chief Kevin Hall:

As Difficult as Demonstrations Can Be, At Least We’ve Trained for That, But COVID Feels Unfamiliar to Officers

Our demonstrations started off Friday night. We have a lot of experience with immigration-related protests, where we work with organizers, know the organizers, embed uniformed officers with the marchers, and allow them to use certain streets. We’ve been doing this for several years now.

The protests occurring right now took us a bit by surprise because the demonstrators didn’t want anything to do with us. We didn’t feel safe embedding officers, because the tone was different. We were the enemy. We accepted that, but I wasn’t going to put officers into the crowd until I had a better feel for what they were going to do.

We allowed them to take the streets and march, and that led into our downtown area. There was vandalism, spray-painting, and broken windows.

One of the things we noticed is that many of these groups are not organized. They don’t know each other, and they have different motives. We had very peaceful groups with families and elderly people, and we also had some young groups with anarchists mixed in.

We had prepared to deny access to our downtown area. We formed a plan that was outside the parameters of our normal mobile field force. We decided to be more flexible, adaptable, and rapid in our deployments. We put our mobile field forces on city buses, and staged them in different areas as we watched the groups. People were gathering at the University of Arizona, so we developed a plan to deny them access to the downtown area at different points.

Later in the evening on both Friday and Saturday nights, the peaceful groups drifted off as darkness came and we saw greater numbers of younger folks masking up. They were staging bricks, rocks, and bottles at different places around the park, so we sent officers in to collect those items.

Once we denied them access to downtown, it became a footrace to another point where they wanted to come in. We were constantly moving our mobile field forces on these buses and jumping out into a skirmish line. We had caravans of patrol cars to serve as blocking agents. It was a running chess game throughout the evening.

Around 2 a.m. it became far more violent. The crowd was getting frustrated about not being able to get into the downtown area. They finally made a final stand. We took a lot of rocks. They set some dumpsters on fire and used those as a blockade. We used pepper balls to move them back, then we went behind them, dropped some gas, and the crowd dissipated. We were able to follow some of the people we identified as rock and bottle throwers and arrest them as they moved away.

We had several arrests Saturday and Sunday night. It was the same scenario, but not as violent. On Sunday afternoon our governor enacted an emergency order for a curfew starting at 8:00 p.m. We were very hesitant about how we were going to implement this curfew. The language is very broad and there are a lot of exemptions carved out of it, so we see enforcing it as somewhat problematic. But we determined that we would only enforce the curfew in our downtown entertainment district, and we made that public. At 8:00 p.m., we asked people to leave the district unless they fell under one of the exemptions. But one of the exemptions was to get food, so you couldn’t do anything about the people there to visit the restaurants.

Wexler: How does COVID come into play during these demonstrations?

Assistant Chief Hall:  To be completely candid, all our precautions kind of went out the window Friday night on the skirmish lines. The officers were donning and doffing their gas masks so quickly that they didn’t mask up with their cloth masks. The arrests happened so quickly that they didn’t have time to change gloves. And we were moving so fast that all the precautions went out the window.

The social distancing also went out the window. You just can’t really do that on the skirmish line or when you’re piling 50 people onto a bus.

The pandemic has been a very confusing time for us. That’s a public health issue, and we as law enforcement are struggling with how to handle that. It’s unfamiliar and it’s confusing.

When a civil disturbance comes along, officers think, “This is what we signed up for. This is what we know how to do. This is what we practice for.” It’s almost like they want to forget about the pandemic, because it’s uncomfortable, confusing, they hadn’t trained for it, and it’s something they don’t know very well. We still do temperature checks, wellness checks, and sanitize vehicles and work areas. But officers are resistant to the masks when it’s 105 degrees out.



PERF also spoke recently to NYPD Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker about civil rights issues that the NYPD is experiencing in connection with its COVID-19 response:

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker:

COVID-19 Enforcement, Demonstrations, and Civil Rights

COVID has us all in uncharted territory. When the virus first hit, the NYPD immediately began to think about how we would enforce the guidance we received from the governor’s and mayor’s executive orders with respect to social distancing use of masks.  The message we gave our officers was very much about compliance, not enforcement.

But in early May, when the weather improved,  we knew we had to be prepared to address non-compliance.  We gave some summonses and we made a number of arrests. It was a small number compared to the total number of interventions, but most of the summonses and arrests were in communities of color. A few of those incidents were captured on video, and we’re dealing with that. Some will be handled through our disciplinary system. We look at videos; we conduct investigations; and that’s what we’re in the process of doing, in at least one serious case.

As of May 22, we stopped issuing summonses for people not wearing masks in violation of the executive orders, which is a good thing. We’re still paying attention to gatherings with 10 or more people, and our focus is still on getting people to comply. If you can avoid having your officers engage in enforcement and instead have community organizations and citizen leaders be the ones handing out masks and trying to get compliance, that would be the ideal.

If your officers have to engage in enforcement activities, it gets tricky with religious groups gathering for funerals. We had hundreds gather in the street for one service, and that was a huge problem. We have tried to work with all the faith-based organizations, and we have conversations on a regular basis to ensure that they are compliant and that they understand the reason for the orders, so we can avoid any need for enforcement.

Events like the situation in Minneapolis are impacting us as well. There are concerns that police are doing enforcement disproportionately in communities of color.

The frustration that I have is that we have conducted fair and impartial policing and have trained our officers better than ever before. We’re also using technology more effectively. We started implementing body-worn cameras in 2015, and now pretty much every officer taking an enforcement action is wearing a body-worn camera, including supervisors.

We’ve taken those steps to make sure that our officers are well-trained, that they use their skills appropriately, and that they have the equipment needed to keep them safe.


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.

Police Executive Research Forum
1120 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 930
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 466-7820