November 21, 2020

In spite of everything this year, we have much to be thankful for.


Dear PERF members, 

A hundred years from now, people will wonder what the 2020 Pandemic was like. None of us will be alive to tell stories about it, but some of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren might be. And some will recount how their ancestors were police chiefs, or sheriffs, or rank-and-file cops who lived through one of the most challenging times in decades.

It may be difficult for future generations to comprehend how quickly COVID turned everything upside-down. Within a matter of weeks, we went from the first COVID cases being counted in the United States to stay-at-home orders and people being afraid to go to the grocery store.

It still amazes me how quickly police chiefs and sheriffs responded, completely changing their practices department-wide to reduce the dangers. Major operations literally changed overnight. Police leaders understood how quickly COVID could rip through their agencies if left unchecked, potentially resulting in their departments being put out of commission.

So they restricted access to station houses, split their forces into cohorts who would never come into contact with each other, scrambled to acquire masks and other protective equipment, stopped in-person response to non-emergency calls, stepped up telephone and online reporting, and made so many other changes. Meanwhile, sheriffs made those changes and also sensed the danger in their jails, so they moved quickly to protect their deputies and inmates.

As if COVID were not enough to deal with, two months into the pandemic, a tragedy occurred in Minneapolis that compounded the trauma and sparked national outrage.  Police were faced with unprecedented demonstrations, and in many cases violence and rioting, with injuries on all sides. In some cities, demonstrations continued every day for more than 100 days.

So COVID cases were still climbing, and now police leaders were also “leading from the front” at protests, dealing with combative local officials, and speaking out about reform efforts they could support (and speaking against ill-advised changes that would have unintended consequences).

When our descendants talk about all this in 100 years, I hope they will tell the stories of heroism and bravery, and also the stories of simple human compassion shown by police every day throughout this terrible year.

Here at PERF, our job is to listen and retell your stories. In New York City, Commissioner Dermot Shea told us what it was like to lose 46 members of his force to COVID – exactly twice as many as the NYPD lost on 9/11.  Sadly, dozens of other departments also have lost members to COVID. In many cases, civilian employees have been among the first casualties.

Chiefs and sheriffs have told us the details of how they’ve handled every aspect of COVID, such as staffing 9-1-1 communication centers, changing recruiting and training programs, helping officers who are out sick with COVID, assisting persons experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, and engaging the public while social distancing.

And several chiefs and sheriffs told us about their own experiences getting sick with COVID.

Frontline police officers and sheriffs’ deputies are facing a new kind of challenge. They’re accustomed to the idea that there’s an element of risk inherent to their jobs. But COVID is different, because it’s not just about their own risk; they’re worried about bringing home the virus to their family members.  As police psychologist Dr. John Nicoletti told us, “We’re fighting an invisible enemy. Cops are accustomed to using their skills to bring a person to justice. But you can’t bring a virus to justice.”

As always, our officers dealt with this new challenge as they always do – by stepping up. They brought groceries to vulnerable seniors, helped teachers who were struggling with the shift to online teaching, helped local restaurants to stay in business, and in many other ways supported their communities.

One of my favorite stories was about the Minnesota state trooper who pulled over Sarosh Janjua for speeding. Janjua was a doctor who lived in Massachusetts, and she had a practice of traveling to Duluth once a month to share her expertise as a cardiologist. Because COVID made air travel risky, she was making her long commute by car rather than flying.

Trooper Brian Schwartz noticed Dr. Janjua’s Massachusetts driver’s license and asked her why she was in Minnesota, and she told him. He also noticed two used N95 masks in Janjua’s purse.  This was back in March, when there were severe shortages of masks and other PPE.

Trooper Schwartz let Dr. Janjua off with a warning, and because he guessed that she might not have enough masks, he also handed her five fresh N95 masks from his own supply.

“I burst into tears,” Dr. Janjua told a reporter. “And though it may just have been the cold wind, I think he teared up a little as well, before wishing me well and walking away.”

I’ve had the honor and pleasure of listening to the stories of good cops and good chiefs for many years. And in 2020, everything’s in overdrive. I’ve heard so many stories about police doing their jobs during the worst health emergency of our lifetime, and during a use-of-force crisis that went to the root of their profession’s integrity.

This Thanksgiving, my thanks go out to the good cops – and to the good chiefs and sheriffs who hire, train, nurture, support, and care about their officers. This is about people who risk their lives to make the world a little safer and a little saner. 

When a good cop helps someone on the street who’s overdosing, or is experiencing homelessness, or is struggling with mental illness, the good cop is all that person may have. 

So thank God for the good cops, many of whom will be working this Thanksgiving, so that those in need can know there is another human being out there who cares for them.

Happy Thanksgiving to all in the PERF family – to our great members, our strong Board of Directors, and my talented staff who have found new ways of doing what we do, in spite of the restrictions of COVID.