Police Departments & COVID-19: The Challenges of Fluctuating Guidelines

By Captain Carol E. Rasor-Cordero, Ph.D.
Senior Associate, CPSM
Retired Captain, Pinellas County, Florida Sheriff’s Office
Associate Professor Public Safety Administration, St. Petersburg College


Carol Rasor-Cordero

Carol Rasor-Cordero

As the new year gets well underway, police departments across the nation are preparing for another year of radical changes and shifting restrictions. On top of last summer’s calls to “reform” or otherwise restructure police operations as a whole, departments across the country are also having to pivot as local, state, and federal COVID-19 guidelines have fluctuated with the rise and fall of case numbers. Either of these events would be complicated enough to handle on their own, but the two together have created a perfect storm for public safety departments across the U.S. From operating with already reduced budgets to dealing with COVID-19 restrictions or even outbreaks among staff and officers, departments are making difficult but necessary changes to continue serving their communities effectively and safely. 

Some of these adaptations are easier to implement and have little impact on operations. As with most other industries, the switch to video conferencing such as Zoom has been an integral part of limiting unnecessary in-person contact and maintaining social distancing. In addition to typical departmental meetings, it’s also possible that some departments will move to a virtual model for interviews or certain detective duties that do not require being on site. For some calls for instance, if there is no evidence to report or danger to the community, it is not necessary for an officer to respond to the scene and instead statements may be taken over a phone or video call.

However, other adaptations departments are having to make are more difficult to maintain and staff limitations in particular are a common source of concern. While agencies remain dedicated to maintaining the minimum number of required officers on site, reduced budgets could mean they are already operating with a lean crew, and the uncertainty of COVID-19 means an outbreak could make their staffing situation even more complicated. Deputy Commissioner Joe Gramaglia of the Buffalo Police Department in Buffalo, New York, notes that their department underwent a “Herculean effort” to cut down on their civilian staff on site and adjust officer shifts to eliminate any overlap in the early days of the pandemic. When cases started to go down, the department began to ease up on these restrictions, only to have to jump right back to operating with a skeleton crew.

“We’re adapting, and I’m consistently impressed by the flexibility of our team, but the back and forth changes wear on everyone,” says Gramaglia. “We are, of course, continuing to serve our community at the same high level they’ve come to expect from us. But behind the scenes, the lack of stability means we’re having to work that much harder to make that happen.”

The challenges the Buffalo Police Department faces are reflected in many other departments too. And while the best solutions to these challenges are unique to each jurisdiction, what every agency can benefit from is an unbiased, data-focused assessment of their current operations. The hard numbers are hard to argue with, and can help police chiefs, council, and city managers get on the same page about how to best serve the community and department. An outside agency like the Center for Public Safety Management can offer an unbiased and data-driven assessment of a department to help leadership make tough decisions based on facts. Knowing where a department expends the most manpower, exactly the kinds of calls it receives and at what times, how long it takes officers to get to a scene and how long they stay there, etc. allows leadership to make informed decisions and ensure the most effective use of their resources.

Once a department has this information, it’s also extremely important to take a barometer of what the community will accept from it’s police department before significant changes are made. Then, ideally, the agencies involved would take the time to educate the community about any changes they might notice in service—whether that be plexiglass in the department offices, taking statements via video or phone call, reduced traffic stops, etc. Keeping the community involved in the process also offers an opportunity to present a united front with City or County staff, councilmembers, and supervisors. Ultimately, by making careful and informed choices now, departments can be prepared for future calls to adapt.

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