August 1, 2020


COVID Has Demonstrated that Police Are Problem-Solvers

Dear PERF members, 

The other night, I  couldn’t sleep.  I’m sure many of you have had your sleep patterns interrupted by the crazy world we’re living in.

On this particular night, I couldn’t stop thinking about interviews I had done that day with police chiefs in college towns.  They had told me about their plans for reopening their campuses in the coming weeks. Chiefs like University of Notre Dame Police Chief Keri Kei Shibata told us that students will return to dorms, attend in-person classes, and go to football games.

That sounded a little challenging to me – especially because it came on the heels of the news that the Miami Marlins had lost half their team to COVID infections.

But in our interview, Chief Shibata didn’t sound daunted. She calmly told us about a range of strategies that she and the University were implementing, such as using students, faculty, and university staff members to enforce social distancing, and various COVID testing mechanisms for students.  At the end of our interview, Keri added that things could change, saying, “We’re being very cautious and keeping an eye on everything. If we start to see an increase in cases on campus that’s unmanageable, we’ll make different decisions.”

And I thought, “This is why police chiefs are so good at what they do. They just figure things out. Keri will step up and figure it out.”

Last year, when we wrote our “Chapter 2” book about what retirement means for police chiefs, we recognized that police chiefs do a lot of different things when they leave their department.  Some do consulting. Some become teachers. Some find entirely new interests to pursue. And some actually retire, and just enjoy life with their families and vacation homes. But what they have in common is that they make their retirement decisions the same way they conducted themselves throughout their career: they analyze their situation, decide what they want, and create a plan to make it happen.

Police chiefs are natural problem-solvers. When anything bad happens, people think, “Call the police, they’ll figure it out.”

Look at the week that Tempe, AZ Police Chief Sylvia Moir just had: a train derailment, a major disturbance in her city resulting in a number of injuries and arrests, and a statewide surge in COVID cases and deaths. Sylvia is navigating through it all.

Lately we’ve been hearing many people say that the police are asked to do too many things, especially things that have to do more with mental illness, drug addiction, and other social issues, not law enforcement.

But I keep saying that it’s a good thing that police are asked to do all these things, because police are natural problem-solvers.

Just take a look at everything the police have done since COVID came on the scene in February.

COVID has upended the daily work of policing in almost every way, but police have responded to these changes quickly, and smartly.  

With every new COVID-related problem thrown at them, police have responded with solutions.

And on most of these issues, there was no time to form committees, hold meetings, and write 10-point plans.  Police simply changed how they did business, often overnight.

Allow me to be a bit more specific:


The first huge problem in February and March was that COVID posed an existential threat to police staffing.  Chiefs realized that without countermeasures, COVID could sweep through their departments and put 80 or 90 percent of their officers on sick leave in a matter of days.

So police immediately scaled back their response to non-emergency calls, closed police facilities to the public, created online systems for the community to interact with police, built a range of systems to support social distancing of officers while they’re on duty, obtained and distributed PPE, and so on.

And looking back on it, the results have been very good. Most agencies have not suffered significant reductions in their staffing levels.  A few departments, especially New York City’s, have suffered heartbreaking losses of many officers and civilian employees to COVID, because the virus swept through their cities so early and so hard.  But for the most part, the threat of American policing being decimated by COVID has not been allowed to happen. 

It didn’t have to be that way.  If police chiefs had dithered, we would be seeing chaos now. But police chiefs and sheriffs took quick action and controlled COVID, rather than waiting for COVID to take control of their departments.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen other examples of creativity and brilliance in police departments and sheriffs’ offices quickly solving COVID-related problems. A few that caught our attention:


Most police departments have had to scale back their recruiting, but some have worked hard to keep the processes moving as much as possible.  As Chandler, AZ Police Lieutenant Melissa Deanda told us, “If an agency idly waits out the pandemic and stops hiring officers, they’ll find themselves in a difficult position with staffing.”

So many agencies quickly adapted – for  example, by moving to online testing of applicants, and using Zoom to hold panel interviews of candidates.

Irving, TX Chief Jeff Spivey even saw a silver lining in this. He told us, “The COVID recession may bring us candidates who otherwise wouldn’t be thinking of a policing career. There’s a group of adults who are now unemployed and will be looking to find a way to feed their families. These may include people who would have never considered policing as a career before, but may be willing to give it a try because of the stability it offers.”


No aspect of policing has been impacted by COVID more than training. But rather than just shutting down training, many police agencies quickly defined their priorities and then moved to keep everything they can moving forward.

In Camden County, NJ, that meant suspending all non-mandatory in-service training, but maintaining remedial training. “We felt it was very important to continue with the internal affairs function,” Captain Kevin Lutz told PERF. “We didn’t want to go months without addressing real-time issues as they came up.” 

Camden County also immediately moved to online training for as many topics as possible at its Training Academy. “It’s not the same as in-person training, but we delivered everything we usually teach in the classroom to the best of our ability,” Kevin said.

One of my favorite examples of problem-solving in recruit training came from Cambridge, MA Officer Cam Deane, who said:

“The state shut us down completely.  We were told on a Thursday that we weren’t going to be able to hold in-person classes the following Monday.  So we spent the weekend setting up something on Zoom. Now we do a roll call on Zoom at 6 a.m. and then an online hour-long workout. Then they shower and get ready and we do a formal roll call again at 8:15.”

“It’s not ideal,” Officer Deane admitted. “You lose some of the esprit de corps that you have in the academy. But it isn’t terrible.”  Another problem solved.


Homicide investigations are not something that can be put on hold or scaled back during a pandemic. But even with this core function of policing, departments have made problem-solving adjustments. Chief Terry Sult from Hampton, VA told us about several innovations, starting with a simple change in shifts, so that only half of the detectives are in the office on a given day, while the others are working from home.

And Hampton police are taking many witness statements by Zoom.

“I asked my detectives about using Zoom for interviews, and they actually like it,” Terry told us. “It’s more efficient, and it’s easier to get hold of people. They like being able to record. Of course, it depends on witnesses having the technology to use Zoom, but it’s pretty straightforward and easy to use.”

I’m grateful to all of the police and sheriff’s officials who have given us their time to tell us about their work on COVID and other issues.  Officers’ problem-solving skills have never been put to such a difficult test, and so far, I think the profession has demonstrated amazing levels of grit and quick-wittedness.  You all can take pride in everything you have done to save lives and maintain police services, during what is clearly the crisis of a lifetime.




Weekend Clips

New Yorker: How police unions fight reform

Activists insist that police departments must change. For half a century, New York City’s P.B.A. has successfully resisted such demands.


Fast Company: Why it’s so hard to find accurate policing data

Across the nation, police departments are as backward as the rest of government when it comes to technology, having been bypassed by many of the private-sector innovations that occurred over the last 30 years. This has left the police with cumbersome systems and limited, often incomplete, data sets, making it difficult to adequately track arrests and use of force—as well as the outcomes of police intervention, both positive and negative.

The police suffer from many of the same problems that have kept government technology mired in the past, the biggest of which is the lack of in-house technical talent. The police are beholden to whatever the few big police IT contractors develop, often unwittingly ending up locked into a single contractor for all of their technology.


The Tablet: Former N.J. police chief guided by Catholic faith; favors community policing rooted in respect, dignity

In 2012, Camden, N.J. had one of the nation’s highest murder rates, but residents still saw the police department as incompetent, corrupt, and not to be trusted.

One year later, J. Scott Thomson, then the city’s police chief, held tight to his Catholic faith as he presided over the unconventional scrapping of his department and replacing it with one operated by Camden County.

The move enabled Thomson, a Camden-area native, to ditch the rules and binding arbitration rulings that kept him from holding his own cops accountable.

Thomson, who was made chief of the county department, then launched a community policing strategy — instead of kicking in doors, officers politely knocked on doors, not to arrest, but to introduce themselves. Trust and communication improved; crime rates fell.


City Journal: University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor William Sousa: There is no substitute for proactive policing

Many advocates of “defunding the police” contend that too many police encounters with civilians concern trivial matters. Defunding proponents worry that poor decisions by officers can escalate tensions and lead to unnecessary uses of force. They argue that the police mandate should be more narrowly focused on responding to “serious” crimes, especially violent felonies. All other matters should not be considered police business. This premise has gained a receptive hearing in our political climate. Most people instinctively support the idea of leaving management of serious felonies to the police, who are certainly less likely to get into trouble if their job is simply to arrest violent felons.

But American policing has tried this idea before, and the results were disastrous for communities and police agencies alike. If history is any guide, confining police focus to serious crimes will do little to manage those offenses—and the strategy may further damage the relationship between police and citizens.


ABC News: New technology in Florida school could be lifesaving in active shooter incidents, police say

When Florida students return to school next year, there will be a new safety measure in place thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last June. Alyssa's Law, named after 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, a victim of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, requires all Florida public and charter schools to implement a mobile system that silently alerts law enforcement and first responders of potentially life-threatening situations -- from shootings to medical emergencies.

But one Florida school is ahead of the pack. Coral Springs Charter School installed and began testing a panic alert system in February before the spread of the novel coronavirus. ABC News saw the system in action before the pandemic with assistance from Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow, 18, was also killed in the Parkland shooting.

Pollack said he hopes the launch of his new program, School Safety Grant, and the implementation of ALERT, or Active Law Enforcement Response Technology, will be one fix when gun laws fail.

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