By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
As the coronavirus continues to spread indiscriminately in the United States and around the world, law enforcement officers are at substantial risk of exposure. While a telephone reporting unit can handle some calls for police service over the phone, many police calls require a physical response by officers who arrive on a scene or at someone’s home.
WebMD reported that the coronavirus, which causes the deadly COVID-19 respiratory illness, was the biggest cause of police officer deaths in 2020. Citing the National Police Foundation (NPF), WebMD said 187 police officers, sheriffs, and corrections officers have died in the United States due to the coronavirus. That figure is more than officers who died from gun violence, car accidents, heart attacks, or other causes.
The NPF found that health and safety was the biggest concern of officers who have been on the frontlines since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020. This is a valid concern for law enforcement officers.
Officers Impacted by the Coronavirus
Over 6,000 police officers have reported being exposed to the coronavirus and one-third have been unable to return to work. This has a substantial effect on law enforcement staffing.
Moreover, unlike other first responders such as healthcare workers, law enforcement officers are not at the head of the line to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Therefore, they are likely to be at risk of contracting the disease in the field for months to come.
It is essential that law enforcement officers and their respective agencies do everything possible to mitigate the risk of the coronavirus. While protocols vary among agencies, some require temperature checks for staff and anyone entering a police station or sheriff’s office. Temperature checks can be effective at identifying someone with symptoms of the coronavirus. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 40% of people who are infected with the coronavirus may be asymptomatic.
Steps that Are in Place to Reduce Risk of the Coronavirus to Officers
Many agencies are holding their daily roll call briefings remotely and require their officers to wear masks when interacting with the public. Many police stations are equipped with plexiglass in the lobby area to protect officers communicating with the public.
According to the Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Noble of the New Jersey State Police, detectives responding to a possible crime scene now “bring a handful of masks, hand sanitizers, and thermometers for temperature checks to use for anyone they come in contact with. We require them to automatically mask up.”
Many agencies have protocols in place to sanitize patrol vehicles that have transported individuals who have been arrested. According to ABC News, Ford has developed a heated sanitizing system can help sanitize police cruisers by temporarily raising the vehicle’s interior temperature to over 133 degrees for 15 minutes. Ford says this helps to reduce the viral concentration inside the police vehicle by more than 99%.
Many police agencies have substantially increased their use of affidavit arrests such as a notice to appear in court, which do not require an accused offender to be taken into custody. This procedure can reduce the exposure risk for officers and jail staff.
Additional Steps Necessary to Protect Officers from the Coronavirus
It is important that additional steps be taken to keep law enforcement officers safe from the coronavirus. According the CDC, law enforcement officers should follow the guidance it has provided for EMS employees. At a minimum, the CDC recommends officers use a single pair of disposable gloves, NIOSH-approved particulate respirators such as N-95 masks, and eye protection that covers the front and side of the officer’s face when in contact with the public.
When close contact occurs during the apprehension of a suspect, the CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting the officer’s duty belt with anti-bacterial cleaning spray; also following the operating procedures for containment and disposal of PPE that has been used. For example, gloves that have been in contact with a subject should be disposed of if a trash can is available or placed in the trunk of the cruiser if there is nowhere else to properly to dispose of the gloves. The CDC also recommends that officers avoid shaking out their uniforms prior to laundering.
As noted, law enforcement agencies have an important responsibility to ensure that officers are equipped with disposable gloves, quality face masks such as N-95 masks, and hand sanitizer. Agencies should also provide their officers with comprehensive policies and procedures that reduce the risk of transmission. Agencies should also provide clear guidance for officers who are exposed to the coronavirus in the field and what actions to take if they do become ill.