Series: Covid-19

Law Enforcement Best Practices Can Help Halt the Spread of COVID-19 by Keeping People Out of Jail

Aaron Stagoff-Belfort Former Program Associate
Mar 27, 2020

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, hit American correctional facilities this week. Two of the largest jails in the country, Rikers Island in New York City and Cook County Jail in Chicago, have multiple confirmed cases.

The more than 3,000 jails in the United States provide ideal conditions for the transmission of coronavirus because of the constant churn of new admissions, overcrowding, inadequate health care, and the frequent lack of access to hand sanitizer or soap and water. Incarcerated people are especially vulnerable because the elevated rate of serious health conditions among those in jail places many in the high-risk population for COVID-19.

Keeping people out of jail and prison must be a priority at this moment, and the approximately 18,000 police agencies in America represent incarceration’s front door. Law enforcement agencies made more than 10 million arrests in 2016, the last year the FBI published Uniform Crime Reporting data, and for every 100 arrests there were 99 jail admissions. The priorities communicated by police chiefs and sheriffs play a critical role in determining the size of jail populations nationwide. Reducing policing’s footprint, particularly by curtailing the mass enforcement of low-level offenses, is crucial to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

When American citizens interact with the police, it is usually their first point of contact with the justice system. Policing, therefore, could become a significant vector of transmission if agencies do not adopt appropriate public health practices. Coronavirus has also presented a fundamental challenge to policing as thousands of officers call in sick, training academies close, agencies wrestle with whether to enforce coronavirus “stay at home” rules, and 911 dispatching systems are overburdened.

On March 18, Vera and Community Oriented Correctional Health Services (COCHS) published a guidance brief identifying preventive and responsive measures that state and local law enforcement can take to contain coronavirus. The policy recommendations include prioritizing prevention by, for example, equipping 911 call-takers and dispatchers to divert more calls-for-service to health resources; issuing a temporary directive to release people on a citation, ticket, or summons in lieu of taking them into custody in appropriate cases; and suspending standard protocols that place people in custody, such as bench and arrest warrants and technical violations of parole and probation.

Vera and COCHS also recommend social distancing actions, such as using a CDC-informed screening tool for anyone who is brought to or from a police station; deploying or expanding online and telephone reporting options for complaints or police reports; and limiting the number of officers who have contact with visitors to the police department and minimizing contact between officers by suspending roll call.

Jurisdictions adopt best practices

A few jurisdictions, including several of the largest police forces in the country, have already adopted some of these best practices. These departments provide examples for law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Some jurisdictions are taking steps to change enforcement patterns.

  • Miami-Dade Police Department has instructed officers to issue “promise to appear” or civil citations for all misdemeanor offenses unless there are “exigent circumstances.” The department has also advocated for the reporting of certain crimes online and suspended eviction assistance and several in-person services.
  • Rockford Police Department has instructed officers to issue notice to appear citations instead of making custodial arrests for all misdemeanor crimes.
  • The Philadelphia Police Department has adopted a cite-and-release policy for most low-level offenses including all narcotics charges, prostitution, vandalism, and several theft charges; it has also suspended arrests for bench warrants.
  • Arrests made by the Los Angeles Police Department in the first two weeks of March have decreased by 14 percent from the previous period as the department has implemented a cite-and-release policy for most misdemeanor offenses. The department has closed public services at their community police stations.
  • Officers for the Fort Worth Police Department must get approval from a watch commander to make an arrest for any Class C misdemeanor. The department has also suspended public fingerprinting and walk-up requests for reports.
  • Two agencies in Colorado—the Denver and Aurora police departments—are no longer sending officers to take incident reports for certain low-level offenses and are touting their online reporting portal.

Other jurisdictions have adopted practices that alter how 911 and other dispatching systems are used and operate.

  • The Harford County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, the Phoenix Police Department, and the Dallas Police Department have been coordinating with and training 911 dispatchers to screen and triage calls related to COVID-19. In Dallas, 911 call-takers now relay emergency situations directly to police dispatchers and then begin coronavirus screening.
  • Aurora, the Metro Nashville Police Department, and the Syracuse Police Department have implemented an alternative call response protocol and are only sending officers to answer 911 calls for violent offenses or emergencies.
  • The Omaha Police Department closed all its precincts to the public and created a call center to manage low-level offenses such as auto theft to avoid sending out patrols.

And several departments have implemented health and safety practices to protect law enforcement staff and the people who interact with them.

  • The Topeka Police Department has programmed a message to pop up multiple times a day on officers’ mobile data terminals reminding them to practice social distancing and follow their hygiene protocol.
  • The Miami-Dade Police Department has created screening stations at all police stations and is conducting roll calls in the field.
  • The Green Bay Police Department has suspended in-person roll call briefings.

These practices all further the goal of keeping police and the communities they serve safe by reducing entanglement with the criminal justice system to protect public health. More agencies should follow suit.

Find a complete list of the recommendations from Vera and COCHS here.