March 20, 2021

Looking Back on a Year Like No Other – and What’s Next for PERF 


Dear PERF members, 

Sometimes I get asked if PERF has a strategic plan. How do we make decisions about which issues to focus on, and how to approach each topic?

My first reaction is to think, “Sometimes, it’s like playing hockey. We drop the puck and skate.”

That may sound glib, but it’s really true.  Sure, many of our projects are mapped out over months or even years, and they require extensive planning and coordination. But sometimes, there’s an event that turns the policing profession upside down, and we need to move quickly.

So we follow our instincts, and somehow it works.  We know where the goal is, and we have a team that has played together for years. We trust each other, and know we will get there. And we have our PERF members helping us along the way.

Over the past 12 months, we have all been tested like never before.

Two things happened that shook policing to its core: the COVID-19 global health crisis, and the tragic death of George Floyd.

Today, I’d like to tell the story of how PERF responded to those twin earthquakes.  And I’ll have some news to share at the end.

First, COVID.  As I think back about what PERF was doing a year ago, like everyone else, we were watching the ominous signs about a virus that was making its way toward us.

I remember I had the PERF staff take their laptops home on Friday night, March 13, so the following Monday, we could hold our first online staff meeting and test our ability to work remotely. Thankfully, everything worked well, and we all began learning how to mute and unmute ourselves.

I remember that on that Monday, the Mayor of Washington, DC issued an order regulating bars and restaurants and ordering movie theaters, nightclubs, and health clubs to close, and warning city workers to stay home.

We knew that COVID-19 would be different from anything we had experienced before, and that it would impact the policing profession, because most police work can’t be done on a Zoom call. Policing was facing a crisis.

And what do police chiefs say about a crisis? That it’s important to communicate. In fact, they say you should “over-communicate” in a crisis, to make sure everyone hears the message.

But as COVID started hitting police agencies in March, there was a big gap.  How could police chiefs and sheriffs communicate with each other about COVID, aside from limited local efforts to talk with a few neighboring jurisdictions? There was no system for national information-sharing about what departments were doing about COVID.

So we had an idea.  PERF would put out a Daily COVID-19 Report, and fill it with information from law enforcement agencies across the country and even around the world.  This would be different from our Daily Clips. The Clips were providing news stories about COVID, but the news media don’t really get into the details of police work. So our Daily Reports would be based on original material, mainly interviews of PERF members and others who had firsthand knowledge of how COVID was affecting policing and lessons that were emerging.

Next question: How often should we do this?  The answer seemed easy:  Five days a week. Things were changing on a daily basis, so we had to do daily reports to keep up.

I sensed that that once we started this, we would have to continue it for a long time. That meant we would need funding. How would we pay for it?

Two longtime friends immediately came to mind: Greg Brown, the CEO of Motorola Solutions; and Howard Buffett, CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, who was Sheriff in Macon County, IL and is actively working with other sheriffs’ offices. Both immediately said they would help with funding support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation and the Buffett Foundation. They are the best!

And so we began. Every morning, every day, I held an online meeting with a core group of staffers, and we discussed what to cover, and who would have expertise about each topic.  We became like news editors and reporters, choosing the issues we would write about and planning the lineup of interviews and Daily Reports for the next few days.

Some stories simply wrote themselves, and others we had to work at. But here’s the part where I want to thank all of you.  Unlike newspaper reporters, we have direct access to PERF members, who are all experts on policing issues. I can’t think of a time when a PERF member didn’t answer our calls asking for an interview. Even though you were busy dealing with COVID, I know that some of you had to rearrange your schedules in order to give us the interview we needed today.  I’ll never forget that.

Sometimes, to get a “big picture” slant on an issue, we did surveys of PERF members, and we always had a pretty tight deadline for responding, but you always came through and helped us.

If you look back at the inventory of COVID Reports we have done, you’ll see a timeline of how COVID impacted policing. One of the first concerns was about preventing the virus from sweeping through an entire unit, or an entire department. So our first reports were about chiefs and sheriffs changing their officers’ work schedules, creating separate platoons to limit officers’ contacts with other officers, scrambling to get enough PPE, suspending roll calls or doing them online or outdoors, reducing the in-person response to relatively minor 9-1-1 calls, closing precinct stations to the public, and dozens of other strategies to reduce the risk.

It’s quite amazing how fast this all happened, or I should say how fast you all made it happen. Within a matter of days, you completely changed how police agencies operate. 

As time went by, we had reports about how departments were pushing to get COVID testing for officers. And sadly, we had to start asking chiefs how many of their officers had become sick with COVID, and whether you had any fatalities. 

Over the months to come, we got into stories like how COVID was affecting investigations, whether COVID was causing certain types of crime to increase or decrease, how the “COVID recession” was affecting police budgets, the effects of COVID on hiring and training officers, the psychological and wellness aspects of COVID, and dozens of other topics. 

And then on May 25, everything changed again, as police agencies faced a new crisis: the tragic death of George Floyd.

Our first Daily Report about that addressed how COVID was throwing a monkey wrench into how police manage demonstrations. For more than two months, police had been trying to reduce their face-to-face contacts with the public, in order to slow the pandemic.  Now, thousands of people were jammed together peacefully demonstrating – or in some cases rioting – and police had no choice but to be out on the streets, endangering their health and in some cases their safety.

By early June, it was becoming clear that the death of George Floyd was an issue that would continue to affect police departments for the indefinite future. Demonstrations continued for months in some cities, and there were widespread calls for a range of police reforms, and for “defunding” police agencies.

So PERF created a new category of daily reports, called the PERF Daily Critical Issues Reports, to cover the response to the demonstrations and other emerging issues.

Many of these COVID Reports and Critical Issues Reports stand out in my memory. Here are a few:

-- Salisbury, Maryland emerged as one of the nation’s hot spots for COVID. The area has large Haitian and Hispanic populations working in the poultry plants.  Many are not fluent in English and were not getting information about COVID. So the Police Department worked with public health agencies to communicate with those vulnerable populations and give them guidance about the virus. “For police to be seen as a resource, instead of just a part of the government to be feared, is going to be a win,” Chief Barbara Duncan told us.

-- As early as March 31, sheriffs were telling us about their strategies for keeping COVID out of their jails. In Dane County, WI, Sheriff Dave Mahoney obtained UV-emitting robots, which are commonly used in hospitals, to disinfect his jail!

-- European countries generally were hit with COVID a few weeks before the United States, so we looked to police officials in Italy, Israel, Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland about what they were facing, as a sort of bellwether of what the United States could expect.

-- Very early in the crisis, we spoke with two chiefs who tested positive for COVID. Ironically, Aurora, Illinois Chief Kristen Ziman caught the virus when she met with other city officials in early March to discuss how to respond to the COVID crisis.  Detroit Chief James Craig also had a rough time with COVID, and lost two members of his department in that first month.

-- Many chiefs offered practical advice about how to manage COVID issues. Yonkers, NY developed a COVID hot spot in one precinct, where all 22 officers tested positive. “We realized it was because they were all riding together. You can’t be socially distant when you’re riding in a car with your partner,” Commissioner John Mueller told us. So he met with the unions and told them they would protect officers’ safety by continuing to send two officers to potentially dangerous calls, but they would drive in separate cars.  

-- No department was harder hit by COVID than the NYPD, so we interviewed Commissioner Dermot Shea five times over the past year. In the first interview, Commissioner Shea said that COVID reminded him of 9/11, because each was like nothing else he had ever seen. Already, on March 24, the number of officers out sick was more than double the normal.

Shockingly, the next time I interviewed Dermot, just three weeks later, 27 members of the NYPD had died. Over the past year, 10,000 members of the NYPD have tested positive.

-- Many of our Critical Issues reports were about George Floyd demonstrations. The experience in Portland was mind-boggling. On September 3, I interviewed Chief Chuck Lovell, who told us, “We’ve had nightly crowd control events for almost 100 nights straight. It’s been especially hard for our front-line folks. They get pelted with rocks and commercial-grade fireworks. We’ve had over 100 officers injured.”

-- On a more positive note, just yesterday our Critical Issues Report told the inspiring story of police agencies in Massachusetts and Maine that are distributing fentanyl test strips to opioid users, to help them determine whether their drugs are laced with lethal fentanyl.  “We’re not sure [if we’ll have grant funding for this program] going forward,” Edgartown, MA Chief Bruce McNamee told us. “But you can’t put a price tag on somebody’s life. We’re happy to incur that expense if we can prevent overdoses in our community.”

As of today, PERF has produced 248 Daily Reports, about evenly split between COVID-19 Reports and Critical Issues Reports.

But now it has been a year, and it feels like the world is getting back to normal, so it’s time to adjust what we’re doing. 

We’ve decided it would be more useful to publish two Daily Reports per week, every Tuesday and Thursday, and make these reports more in-depth.

For myself and my staff, I will never forget this year. When I talk to many of you, you have told me that these reports were invaluable. And that makes me feel like our work helped to make your job a little easier, by giving you a sense that you were not alone, that other chiefs and sheriffs were facing the same challenges you were. And for that I feel enormous pride that PERF did its job.

Again, I’m grateful to all the PERF members and others who have given us interviews, provided information, and completed surveys for our Daily Reports.

Weekend Clips are below.