March 26, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


PERF Asks the NYPD:

What Is Your Advice to Other Departments?

On March 24, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, and Chief of Department Terry Monahan about the lessons they are learning as they direct the nation’s largest police department, as it responds to the largest-scale COVID-19 pandemic crisis in the United States.

Unfortunately, New York State currently accounts for more than half of the known coronavirus cases in the United States, and New York City has more than half of the cases in all of New York State.

PERF is grateful to Commissioner Shea, First Deputy Commissioner Tucker, and Chief Monahan for taking the time to share their thoughts with PERF members.


Commissioner Dermot Shea:

Make Sure Your Officers Know You Value What They’re Doing

Chuck Wexler: What’s it like to be leading a police department at a time like this?

Commissioner Shea: You need to have a good team. You need to manage in a crisis, and keep your eye on what’s important. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we’re writing the playbook as we go.

Hopefully departments have put themselves in a good position beforehand by drilling for crises, having logistics and supply chain plans in place, and setting up good internal and external messaging. All of those things are being tested with the COVID-19 crisis.

And while all these tasks are swirling around you, you have to remember what’s really important here, which is the human side of it: your employees, your employees’ families, and your community members.

You feel for your employees, because they’re worried about whether they will catch the virus, they’re worried about their families, and they’re worried about their family members’ livelihoods and businesses that could devastated by this.

At the same time, you have to manage the day-to-day, getting people out the door and doing what has to be done today. And you’re doing it all via Zoom, Skype, or phone.

And you’re forced to have conversations where you’re asking people, “Who will take your place if you get sick tomorrow? Who’s the third person in line? Who’s the fourth person in line?”


The Most Difficult Part of the Crisis

Wexler: Is there anything in your career that has prepared you for this day?

Commissioner Shea: 9/11 is the event that I would compare it to, although it’s very different in some ways. The similarity is that on 9/11, I remember thinking, “I’ll never see anything like this again.” I’ve never seen anything like the COVID crisis before.

But it’s a completely different experience. You knew what 9/11 was, and it was somewhat contained after the first days and weeks. For people in some roles, their jobs went somewhat back to normal after a month.

The COVID-19 pandemic is very early, but it’s such a strange experience. The strange part isn’t only that no one is out on the street. It’s that we’re planning for the unknown.

That makes it difficult. Is this pandemic going to last two weeks, two months, or a year?


Trust Your Health Professionals for the Guidance You Need

Wexler: How are you dealing with keeping your officers on duty?

Commissioner Shea: This crisis is really headed by the health professionals. For us, it’s the New York City Department of Health, the New York State Department of Health, and the CDC.

We normally have about 1,000 people out sick for long-term illness, broken bones, normal colds, and everything else. That’s about 3% of our workforce. We’ve seen a steady climb, starting around March 12, and we have over 7% of our workforce out now.


Keeping Your Employees’ Spirits Up

Wexler: How do you motivate your employees in this kind of crisis? What’s the message you’re trying to get out?

Commissioner Shea: The message should be one that they relate to. As best you can say it, you should express that you understand what they’re going through, and thank them for what they’re doing. Make them realize how important what they’re doing is for the people of your city. People rely on the police for a little normalcy, and for all the everyday things they always did.

I think this also applies to medical professionals, the fire department, subway train drivers, and other who have to keep working through this crisis.

It's important to tell your employees what you know. If you leave a void, it gets filled with rumors. So you need to tell them things like, “Here’s the equipment you need, and here’s what you should be using.” If you don’t have the amount of equipment you need, you should explain why, whether it’s “We didn’t order enough,” or “We used it too much,” or “Nobody had enough, and here’s what we’re doing to get you more.”

So I think you start by telling them how important their work is and how appreciated they are, and then you tell them what they need to know about things like policy changes.


Can We Expect an Impact on Crime?

Wexler: Are you surprised that crime is down? Do you worry about crime increasing during this crisis, or is that not what keeps you up at night?

Commissioner Shea: There is still crime going on, but it has dropped off the planet since March 12, [when NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced restrictions on public gatherings and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency]. There’s no one on the streets, and businesses are closed. I’m sure that there is still crime happening that isn’t being reported, but overall we’ve seen a pretty steep drop in crime. Crime has really taken a back seat to keeping our members safe and on the job, and keeping information flowing.


Focus on Separating Employees from Each Other

Wexler: What is one piece of advice you’d give America’s police chiefs to help them navigate through this crisis before it hits them?

Commissioner Shea: I would tell chiefs to prepare, and get ready for it. Prepare for the worst, and you can always pull back. You don’t want to be trying to catch up.

And take personnel allocations extremely seriously. We’ve emptied our headquarters out. In offices that don’t empty out, when one person gets the virus, everyone gets it.

So you should be doing everything you can to limit the opportunity for the virus to spread and take everyone out.


First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker:

Your Messages to the Officers Should Answer Their Questions

Wexler: What’s your top priority these days?

First Deputy Commissioner Tucker: I think the first challenge is, how do we keep doing what we do as the NYPD, keeping people safe in the city? In the context of this unprecedented crisis, what that looks like is much different. Our priority is our cops, and giving them what they need to go out and do the job. That means not only equipment, but information, and responding to their concerns with one message, one voice.

Wexler: What is getting less attention because of the crisis?

First Deputy Commissioner Tucker: Well, COVID has really thrown a monkey wrench into our training program. Almost everything has been cancelled, except for some civilian classes and some recruit training that was under way. We’re always focused on our patrol strength. But the recruit training had to discontinue some of the scenario-based exercises and hands-on training, which of course can’t be done in this environment.

Wexler: What advice would you give to other police departments as this pandemic spreads?

First Deputy Commissioner Tucker: Make sure that communications between the leaders and the officers on the ground are fluid. It’s really important that the lines of communication be clear and prompt, and that messages be given in a variety of ways. Roll call messages aren’t the best way in this environment. We’ve been able to push the messages directly to the officers’ phones. It’s important to provide information that’s useful to them, that answers their questions. And the messages from various levels of the organization should be in sync with each other. Provide clear direction about what they should or should not do.

For example, we are providing guidance about what officers should say to people who are standing in line outside a supermarket, to keep it orderly and safe. We tell them this is not about being in an enforcement mode, but rather encouraging people to comply with the important, common-sense restrictions that have been put in place for good reasons.


Chief of Department Terry Monahan:

We Need Everyone in the Department to Be on One Team

Wexler: Every day during this crisis feels like a week. How are you approaching each day?

Chief Monahan: The first thing I check every day is what happened the night before, including major incidents and the latest sick numbers for the department. I use that to identify any potential safety concerns for the cops, and any staffing issues I’ll have to deal with.

I also get messages from City Hall early in the day, letting us know about new tasks they want us to take care of. I have to figure out who to assign those things to, and where I can find the cops to complete the task.

Each day is a different challenge.

Wexler: How do you manage your command staff, to make sure they don’t overwork themselves?

Chief Monahan: Normally the command staff would have to be on-scene all the time for a major incident like this. But we’re trying to keep people apart, so they’re doing a lot on their phones. That gives them a chance to get home. They might still be on phone conferences until all hours of the night, but at least they’re at home.

Usually we’d have about 40 people meeting in our command center. Now it’s me, Commissioner Shea, Deputy Commissioner Tucker, and a couple members of the support staff. Everyone else calls in for our daily meeting.

You also have to take a little time to get off that phone and relax.

Wexler: What’s your key piece of advice to other departments?

Chief Monahan: Encourage your cops. It’s important for the cops to know that you’re there for them. They’re going to be nervous, and you have to be able to speak honestly to them. Get them the equipment they need. Fight for them, and let them know that you’re fighting for them.

I speak to my unions almost daily. I listen to them, and I take advice from them. I ask what their membership would think about changes we’re considering. We’ve changed decisions based on input from the unions. We need everyone to be on one team right now. It can’t be management vs. union. It has to be one big police department working together.


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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