March 14, 2020


PERF members on responding to the COVID-19 threat and previous PERF reports on responding to a pandemic

Dear PERF members,

It feels like it was a month since I last wrote to you a week ago. The coronavirus crisis has upended our lives, and the situation is changing so quickly every day. And unfortunately, it looks like we are still in the very early stages of this.

A week ago, I sent an email to all PERF members asking you to tell us what you were doing about the COVID-19 threat, and what your greatest needs are. We received more than 100 responses, and I want to thank everyone who took the time to write back to us. This edition of PERF Trending will be entirely about COVID-19 and what you have told us about your departments’ responses. I was impressed with the level of detail and preparation in the plans we reviewed.

I had an idea for giving this some structure. More than a decade ago, PERF issued a series of reports about the very type of threat we are facing now, with support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation and DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Two of our main pandemic reports are available here and here.

The recommendations in our reports have held up over the years, because the science of viruses and pandemics hasn’t changed radically. So in this issue of PERF Trending, I’m going to cite a few of our recommendations, and then quote some of the responses to show how the recommendations can be put into practice.

PERF recommendation: The need for advance planning is critical, because a pandemic flu can sweep through a population in a matter of days and weeks. By contrast, it can take months to develop plans for a pandemic flu.

Among the 100 departments that responded, it was clear that many departments have conducted extensive planning for pandemic threats. Many departments sent us detailed Special Orders and other documents covering all aspects of what PERF recommended. Chiefs like Chief David Carter of the University of Texas at Austin Police Department ticked off item after item in what they have done to protect their officers and the public, from small-but-critically-important things like frequent sanitizing of computer keyboards, to major plans for how the department would function if 50 percent of their officers had to self-quarantine. In many cases, police departments had existing general orders on pandemic response, and they quickly updated them with new provisions related to the COVID-19 crisis.

Many chiefs told us that their departments are already in high gear planning for COVID-19, even though the threat hadn’t yet materialized in their jurisdiction. “There have been no confirmed cases in our city, but the level of community concern is high,” Methuen, MA Police Chief Joseph Solomon told us. “We updated our pandemic policy, and we had a meeting this morning to review our Continuation of Operations Plan. The COOP is being updated.”

Some PERF members, such as Ryan Derby, Emergency Services Manager for the Humboldt County, CA Sheriff’s Office, sent us new federal documents that provide specific guidance about the COVID-19 threat, such as the CDC’s excellent one-page flyer, What law enforcement personnel need to know about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Tampa Police Captain Ashley Roberts also sent us brief, informative documents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement: COVID-19 Law Enforcement Guide and COVID-19: Recommendations for 911 Public Safety Answering Points.

Our inquiry asked PERF members to identify their greatest needs for assistance or supplies, and by far, the most common need is for more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and supplies such as hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Some respondents identified other needs. Anne Arundel County, MD Police Chief Tim Altomare said his department did not have enough laptop computers for all of the department’s civilian employees to use if they had to work from home.

I was impressed by the sophisticated level of understanding that many of our members demonstrated about the technical aspects of the COVID-19 threat. For example, Eureka, CA Chief Steve Watson wrote, “I have moderate concerns about the safety of the community and members of my department, since much is still unknown about this novel coronavirus and its true mortality rate. Right now, the death rate is estimated at over 3 percent, which is a major concern. However, it seems logical that there are many thousands of unreported/unknown cases with mild symptoms, so I’d expect to see the mortality rate hopefully go much lower.” Chief Watson wrote that more than a week ago. I’m still seeing people on the TV news channels who don’t seem to have that level of understanding.

PERF recommendation: Set realistic expectations of the law enforcement role in a pandemic flu scenario. In any large-scale emergency, police resources (and the resources of other first responders) can quickly be overwhelmed. Be strategic in determining how staffing losses may impact the functioning of the department.

The possibility of officers becoming infected with the coronavirus and having to self-quarantine was clearly on the minds of most PERF members who responded to our inquiry. For example, Clearwater, FL Chief Dan Slaughter said, “The department has begun reviewing/updating a Continuity of Operations plan that includes modifying scheduling to provide adequate coverage should the department experience 30% or more of the workforce being unavailable due to illness. The department is reviewing what calls would require an officer response, and expanding what calls could be diverted to the telephone report unit or online reporting.”

PERF recommendation: Build on existing relationships. Look for outside resources.

Chief Mike Coffin of the New Smyrna Beach, FL Police Department was one of many chiefs who told us they are expecting to ask for assistance, or offer assistance, to other departments if needed. Chief Coffin told us: “COVID-19 is a big concern for us, since we are in the thick of the Eastern Central Florida tourist area and we expect to have cases in short order. With an agency-authorized FTE at 53 sworn, we cannot afford to have any officers exposed to the virus and taken out of action for two-plus weeks. We are working with the Volusia County EOC and the State Health Department to provide a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary response. I expect that we will need to request mutual aid from state and local law enforcement should our agency suffer more than 10-12 cases internally, and we will certainly offer our assistance to any agency within the county that may need our help if they are affected. If we have a significant outbreak in the civilian population locally, we will begin to handle many non-priority calls via telephone to minimize our exposure to potentially sick citizens.”

PERF recommendation: The goal during a pandemic flu is to keep the law enforcement workplace as disease-free as possible, by increasing the cleaning of police facilities and reducing the possibility of having sick or exposed persons contaminating the work area and thus exposing other personnel to the disease.

Milton, GA Police Chief Rich Austin told us that because Milton is in the Atlanta metro, where COVID-19 cases appeared early, his department has emphasized the need for “an abundance of caution” in cleaning work areas and using protective equipment. He noted that even a small instance of carelessness could result in a police officer or firefighter being infected, which would have large implications. 

“Our main concern is that one call that results in a quarantine of an entire police squad or fire battalion would significantly impact our overall public safety operations,” Chief Austin said.

PERF recommendation: Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training. Carefully consider the amount and type of personal protective equipment (PPE) and emergency supplies needed.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best sent us a Special Order she implemented requiring all sworn police personnel to be fit-tested for N-95 masks as soon as practical. “Proper fit testing and instruction is essential and will be completed by the Arson and Bomb Squad,” she said. “ABS will initially distribute masks, and station masters will maintain a supply.”

Many departments told us that they have had difficulty obtaining sufficient quantities of masks, gloves, sanitizer, and other PPE. Some types of equipment with long expiration dates can be stockpiled to some extent, but departments generally try to avoid being wasteful in stockpiling too much equipment that must be replaced periodically.

PERF recommendation: Protect workforce health. Establish policies to reduce the transmission of disease to law enforcement officers on the job.

Many chiefs who replied to our inquiry emphasized the need to train officers not to put themselves at unnecessary risk of contracting the virus. These strategies included suspending the response to calls for service about low-level crimes, waiting for Fire or EMS to co-respond to incidents that are known to involve a person who may have the coronavirus, and general “social distancing” from the public.

For example, Fife, WA Assistant Chief Dave Woods sent us guidance he sent to officers that provide multiple layers of protection. The first layer is that Dispatch is using modified caller queries to assess for the possibility that a caller may have COVID-19 or respiratory distress. If there is such an indication, officers should don PPE before entering the scene.

And Chief Woods’ guidance instructs officers not to rely solely on 911 dispatch for alerts of possible COVID-19. The guidance tells officers to perform “Doorway Triage” at the scene of all 911 calls. That means that officers should ask, “Does anyone here have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or respiratory distress?” If the answer is yes, officers should immediately don PPE and stage for Fire Department arrival, unless there is an imminent danger to life or property. Furthermore, the guidance states that officers should “only book suspects exhibiting symptoms for serious felony violations or mandatory arrest situations.”

The guidance in Fife also provides detailed tips for transporting a suspect who is confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19: “Contact the receiving jail BEFORE leaving the scene for instructions. Limit number of officers during transport – preferably one only. Receiving jail staff should come out to meet officer in the Sally Port, so officers don’t need to bring patient into the jail while wearing potentially contaminated PPE. After suspect turnover to jail, officers should carefully remove and discard PPE as medical waste.”

It's important to ensure that officers understand the guidance about how to protect themselves. Chief Joseph Bartorilla of the Middletown Township, PA Police Department said, “The key is keeping officers informed. The more informed they are, the more in control they feel. Our police department’s medical director, Dr. Gerald Wydro, will give an in-person presentation to our department and surrounding police departments on COVID-19, how it is impacting police officers, and what police officers should do to minimize their risk of exposure. And he will have a lengthy Q&A session to answer officers’ questions and concerns. The presentation will be video-recorded for any of our officers unable to attend.”

A tough question looking forward

Anchorage, AK Chief of Police Justin Doll raised a controversial issue that some cities may have to face:

“In the past few days, the discussion has frequently turned to the possible eventuality of ‘mandatory quarantines’ and other government-mandated actions that police would be responsible for enforcing. As the conversation progresses, it pivots to the use of force and what it would look like to enforce these types of medical, civil, or public health issues. I often get responses that sound something like, ‘Well, we just want you to enforce it a little bit, but you know, not with force.’ As you can imagine, I have grave concerns about this type of vaguely defined scenario.

“Fortunately, here in Anchorage, our elected leaders are listening to our concerns and have been thoughtful in their approach so far. We are moving toward directives for our residents that ‘strongly encourage’ behavior, instead of mandating action or outlawing certain things.”

Some final noteworthy responses

Some of the responses we received caught my eye as being especially smart and prescient. We’ve heard a lot in the news about the low level of testing for COVID-19 that we have in the United States. As Chief John Milby of the Furman University Police Department in Greenville, SC expressed this, “Asking people with COVID-19 symptoms if they have been to China is way behind the curve, given the fact that we now have community-based spread of the virus nationwide. We need to have many more people tested for COVID-19, and a plan for isolation, contact tracing, and quarantining to have a chance of containing it.”

And recently I’ve heard experts on TV say that this is not only about testing people who feel ill and go to their doctors to ask for a test. Rather, the United States needs to be more proactive about testing vulnerable populations, such as elderly residents of assisted living facilities, to prevent COVID-19 from decimating these populations as it did in Kirkland, WA.

In this regard, I was impressed with the simple decency and humanity of the response from Palm Beach Gardens, FL Police Chief Clint Shannon, who said, “Needs for assistance will include concerns over our elderly population in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and with our homeless population.”

Some police departments face special challenges in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. The University of Notre Dame had students, faculty, and staff members in Italy. “We brought them back from Italy and asked them to self-isolate off campus for two weeks,” Chief Keri Kei Shibata told us. “We continue to monitor the other locations where we have students abroad.”

I also got a message from Peter Halliday, former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police Force, who still lives in Hong Kong running a consulting business. Hong Kong currently has 134 cases, and appears to have gotten the threat under control, according to a New York Times article.

“The containment of COVID-19 here is currently by far the major government priority,” Peter told us. “Little is being spared to achieve this objective. In most major respects, Hong Kong has shut down. All essential services continue to run. A large number of events and functions have been cancelled. All schools and universities are closed and are functioning by way of online classes. The overarching objective is to minimize the congregation of significant numbers of people, to reduce the potential for contagion.”

It’s worth noting that even when police agencies do everything right and have good plans in place, officers face risks in protecting public safety, and the coronavirus crisis is no exception to that rule. Sunnyvale, CA Deputy Chief Ava Fanucchi told us about an incident in which officers gave CPR chest compressions to a 72-year-old man who was unconscious and not breathing. The man died, and a family member later told police that he had recently been on a cruise with two people suspected of having the coronavirus. The officers were quarantined at a city facility.

Fortunately, testing later revealed that the deceased man did not have the coronavirus.

For one more perspective, let me quote from PERF’s 2007 Influenza Pandemic report, about why police have such a big role in what is really a public health issue:

Why would a flu pandemic be a police problem, as opposed to a public health problem? There are several reasons: Police may be called upon to enforce quarantines, to provide security in hospitals swamped with patients, and to ensure that vaccines—when they became available in limited quantities—could be delivered to those with the greatest need for them.

But perhaps the biggest reason why a flu pandemic would be a police problem lies in the answer to this question: Whenever anything bad happens, whom do people call? The local public health agency? How many people even know the name of their public health agency, much less its phone number?

When bad things happen, people call the police. Public health agencies would take the leading role in dealing with a flu pandemic, but police would be involved from start to finish, if only because the public always looks to the police to answer their questions and solve their problems.

Finally, just a reflection – I haven’t experienced this kind of national emergency since the days after 9/11. Fear of flying, wondering what will happen next – and the fact that when bad things happen, the police step up. Here is that time again, to step up and lead.

Again, I’m grateful to all of you who shared your COVID-19 experiences and work with us. Stay safe and well, and I’ll email you again next Saturday.




PERF’s Weekend Clips

Asheville (NC) Citizen Times: New Asheville Chief David Zack: Officers know beating is ‘stain’ on department

David Zack says he knew what he was walking into in becoming chief of Western North Carolina’s biggest police force on Feb. 4, leaving a department in western New York where he served 33 years.

“If I thought this was like some massive fix-it job, I probably would have avoided it. But the more I talked to people, I didn't see it as that,” Zack told the Citizen Times.

He is Asheville Police Department’s fifth chief since 2010. City Manager Debra Campbell picked Zack in January. He replaced Chris Bailey, Campbell’s first appointment, who left in September after only two months.

Zack dealt with racial turmoil in his former town of Cheektowaga and has promised to bring stability to APD.


Irish Central: NYPD Commissioner Shea on his Irish parents and his policing career to date

St. Patrick’s Days gone by are firmly etched into the memory of Dermot Francis Shea, the New York Police Department’s 44th commissioner who assumed the top cop job on December 1 of 2019. 

The son of Irish immigrants who was raised in the Irish enclave of Sunnyside, Queens, Shea remembers making the trek into the city every single March 17 with his parents Ellen and Richard and his four siblings.  The Sheas would always head off bright and early to assume a prime viewing spot on Fifth Avenue – with lots of blankets and sweaters to keep warm “because it was always freezing,” Shea, 50, told the Irish Voice during a recent interview in his office at One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan.

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