Law Enforcement: The Original Social Distancers

March 20, 2020

Some public servants are uniquely positioned to understand the immediate risk of bad things. Soldiers deployed to active zones, firefighters entering burning structures, corrections officers on the block, and yes, law enforcement officers on so many of their calls for service.

These professionals increase their margin of safety through training, the proper use of proper equipment, and by surrounding themselves with a tactically sound team they can rely on.

In law enforcement, a cornerstone concept we teach during defensive tactics training is that of the reactionary gap – maintaining an ideal distance of six to nine feet between yourself and any unknown individual you interact with. This is done to protect against sudden assault and to try to reduce the immediate risk of bad things. We know how challenging this and other aspects of proper relative positioning can be. We’re even more aware of the dangers posed when officers relax their attention to these basics of safe positioning.

Today, officers face a unique threat – the coronavirus – that doesn’t announce itself in advance nor jump out at you in a way that you can defend against with weapons or tactics. There are, however, tactics and procedures that do provide a level of safety for officers and allow them to continue their mission of safeguarding the public.

Biological risk is nothing new for cops. When I began as a patrol officer in Florida in the late ‘70s, I responded to a call of a man attempting suicide in a small apartment about two blocks from the PD. The young man had cut both wrists and I applied direct pressure, as I had been taught until EMS arrived. When they did, just a couple of minutes later, I completed paperwork for the man to be held on a 72-hour evaluation by psychiatric personnel. I knew that as an officer, this was the only help I could provide. But as I looked around the man’s apartment, I was struck by the amount of blood everywhere. It wasn’t exactly the shower scene from Psycho, but I mean, it was everywhere.

So, embracing the reason I became a police officer, I got some paper towels and proceeded to spend about 45 minutes cleaning up the blood. I assume that you’re cringing like I am right now. To the defense of my younger self, we knew little if anything about universal precautions or bloodborne transmission of potentially harmful pathogens.

A couple of years later as the FTO sergeant at a large sheriff’s office, I accompanied a warrant deputy friend of mine on what he assured me would be the “easy” arrest of a young woman on a drug charge. A legendary detective, Dick Cummings was known to be able to simply call most people and ask them to come turn themselves in…and they did. I should have been suspicious when Dick said he would buy me lunch before we went to pick up the woman.

Moments after the woman opened the door, things predictably went south. She was a crack addict and quite high at the time. To complicate things, she was holding a six-week-old infant in her arms. When Dick asked her if anyone was at home who could watch the baby while she came with us, the look in her eyes made it clear how this was going to go. As we stepped into the front hallway, she began to swing the six-week-old around like a shield. I was able to scoop the infant out of her arms and turn my body while simultaneously trying to radio for backup. During the scuffle, she bit a nice chunk out of my arm. This was the mid- ‘80s and we were aware of the risks of HIV blood-borne transmission by this point, so we took her to the ER in handcuffs to be tested.

Today we face the challenge of maintaining social distance, not just for sudden assault and the immediate risk of bad things, but for the risk of contracting the coronavirus which although for most will only mean temporarily dealing with mild to moderate flu-like condition. It also comes with the risk of infecting fellow officers, other members of the public and your loved ones.

So, what do we do?

Some useful tools. First, there is solid information coming from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Agencies are using this information along with model policies that have been available from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for quite some time now. One of our challenges as individual officers and certainly as trainers is to be serious about this threat. We should discourage officers from taking the risks lightly and remind them that it isn’t about them as individuals, it’s about all of us.

Second, there are some policy tools available to law enforcement and corrections administrators that I recommend. The first is a tool that has been used by law enforcement agencies in other circumstances and deserves to be pulled out again.

At one of the large sheriff’s offices where I worked, our main jail facility was bursting at the seams at double its rated capacity. The agency was under a federal mandate to reduce the numbers of inmates and to build additional jail capacity. Please note that this was back when the philosophy was to arrest almost everyone for almost everything, at least in many jurisdictions across the country. I can tell you as a professor of criminology and criminal justice, that strategy of deterrence never worked and has been proven to not be a viable solution to any societal problem. But on to the tools available….

Our uniformed patrol began to use the court summons as a primary method of having people respond to criminal charges. The vast majority do show up, and if they don’t, we find them later. This tool has the benefit of not removing the discretion that is so central to the uniform patrol officer. It does reflect the responsibility of the supervisory and leadership individuals of an agency to handle crime in their jurisdiction based on local needs or priorities.

Another tool available to local jail authorities is one that some jurisdictions are familiar with or may have used. This tool generally comes into play in the scenario I just described — where a facility is so far over its rated capacity that no one is safe and there are potential federal lawsuit vulnerabilities. In conjunction with reducing the number of arrests coming into a facility, county jail and detention centers can use the knowledge, insight, and skill of their booking and classification personnel to triage which inmates might be eligible for a temporary furlough until the coronavirus trajectory and the medical responses are more known. This, however, should not be confused with pretrial release, bail procedures and the like. Let me explain…

In 1995, as northwest Florida prepared for the projected category 5 Hurricane Opal to make landfall, I took an unusual step in jail management. I received a local judge’s permission to furlough approximately 20% of my inmate population for a period of weeks. The purpose was to both lessen the resource burden our sheriff’s office was facing and to reduce the potential liability we could face in the event of storm-related injury or death of inmates in our care. Once these lower-risk inmates were identified and released, I mobilized the remainder of my correctional staff and evacuated the rest of the inmate population north into Alabama. This was under the category of “Logistics-R-Fun.” All except one inmate returned as directed. He was a traffic misdemeanant who subsequently faced a felony escape charge for not returning.

Protecting against the inevitable. These are not full policy positions. These are policy tools available to administrators that can be tailored to each agency’s unique circumstances and resources.

What I believe we all recognize is that litigation in some form will arise from the well-intentioned and professional responses of those working in public safety. A timely procedure or policy statement can help protect against this. This should state that corrections will work with the courts to consider furloughs and that law enforcement, through brief training and clear leadership, can forestall some physical arrests. This should also document that this was done in an organized and consistent fashion throughout the uniformed ranks.

The use of summons and reviewing the guidelines of discretion with all officers is not tantamount to work slowdown. The insights that formal and informal leaders within the ranks can provide to peers can support the role of police – protect the public. Furloughs of current inmates make good actuarial sense and allow some individuals to be where they may be needed. And, again, it takes possibly significant numbers of people out of facilities who are no more equipped to deal with pandemic-driven sickness than they are with fellow inmates who struggle with mental illness, drug addiction, and other life challenges.

Stand back from people a bit farther, give good-natured smiles a bit more often, hold fellow officers accountable for good practices, and remember what we all signed up for: to help others.


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