Policing Is Changing In The Age of Social Distancing

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 5:27 pm

One of the few silver linings to this pandemic is that in most places, there's been less crime.

"Calls for service are certainly down," says Sgt. Adam Plantinga of the San Francisco Police Department. "No open bars means there's fewer late-night brawls, and people are home more, so burglars are having a tougher time of it."

Police departments across the country are facing a new reality in the era of coronavirus. As familiar categories of crime fade, officers are being asked to handle unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable new assignments.

In some cities, police are being asked to start enforcing social distancing rules. Over the weekend, Chicago police located and broke up house parties, while the New York Police Department sent 1,000 officers out on "social distancing patrols."

This mostly means having officers walk through public spaces, reminding people to stay 6 feet apart. But there have been some complaints about inequitable enforcement, especially after an arrest related to social distancing in the East Village became violent. The NYPD said it was investigating the incident.

Police generally dislike doing social distancing duty. "That's not why we got into this profession," says Capt. Tom Shaffer of the Omaha Police Department. "I can speak for all nearly thousand sworn law enforcement officers here: Nobody became a cop so they could go to a bar and grill and say 'You've got 11 people here, you've got to send one home.'"

He's more focused on holding the lid down on an increase in felony assaults and a near-doubling of detected gunshots in a higher-crime part of the city, which coincided with March social distancing orders. He thinks the "criminal element" must have noticed police were doing fewer traffic stops because of precautions against potential coronavirus contamination.

"It's just one piece, but I think that that, over time, is kinda like, 'Hey, we got a better chance to go from point A to point B and not get pulled over,'" he says.

Shaffer says the department has now reassigned more officers to gang enforcement, and with improved supplies of protective gear, he thinks officers are becoming more "proactive" again and interact more with the public.

In Seattle, Natasha Moore works with at-risk youth, and is a member of the city's Community Police Commission. People tell her they're seeing more patrols, though it may just seem that way because the streets are so empty.

"Some people do like the fact that more police are out," she says, "just making sure there's no issues going on."

She says the commission has lobbied for more relaxed enforcement of things like parking enforcement, during this crisis. It's also developing webinar training to help police and others better respond to people who are feeling traumatized.

"I could assume that people aren't in their right mind right now, with everything that's going on," she says.

The pandemic is making things harder for those who try to practice "community policing." Max Geron, a veteran of the Dallas Police Department, was recently hired as the chief of police for the Dallas suburb of Rockwall. He says social distancing took hold just as he was starting his new job, and it was more difficult to establish the personal connections he believes are vital for effective law enforcement.

"It has made it remarkably challenging for someone like me," Geron says. "I would have very quickly into my tenure would have set up community meeting to get out and shake hands... there's only so far you can go with a Zoom meeting."

There are new communications barriers for patrol officers, too, Geron says, in the form of the masks that they and members of the public are wearing. It's especially difficult when officers are trying to deal with someone having an emotional crisis.

"When you're used to seeing and responding to those non-verbal cues and you suddenly take some of those away," Geron says, "it's like you've lost one of your senses.

"I'm really looking forward to when this is hopefully behind us," the new chief says. "And in some way, even if it's a little different, we can go back at least to face-to-face human interaction."

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OK, one silver lining during this pandemic - crime is down. That doesn't mean that law enforcement has nothing to do, though. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The most visible new assignment for police these days is enforcing social distancing. On Saturday, Chicago's new police superintendent, David Brown, warned that he'd be sending out his cops to break up house parties.


DAVID BROWN: As silly as that sounds, you could be arrested for having a party in this environment.

KASTE: A thousand officers were sent out on social distancing patrols in New York over the weekend, which mostly meant reminding people in public spaces to stay 6 feet apart. There have been complaints in some cities that the rules are being enforced unevenly or unfairly, even as most cops will tell you that they'd rather not even be doing this kind of work. Tom Shaffer is a captain with the Omaha Police Department.

TOM SHAFFER: I can speak for all nearly thousand sworn law enforcement officers here - nobody became a cop so they could go to a bar and grill and say, you've got 11 people here; you've got to send one home.

KASTE: But often, the new reality for cops isn't about crowd control; it's about eerily empty streets.

ADAM PLANTINGA: We've had some reports of coyotes wandering around downtown.

KASTE: Sergeant Adam Plantinga patrols in San Francisco. He also writes books about police work. He says some aspects of that work are a little different now - traffic stops, for instance.

PLANTINGA: Officers are trying to keep themselves and their families safe, too. So if someone's doing a California roll through a stop sign, we might have been more inclined to stop them and either run their license or give given a ticket pre-corona than now.

KASTE: And when they do catch a suspect, if it's a nonviolent crime, he says sometimes they'll just let that person go, especially if there's a contamination risk or the jail's crowded. He says they can always get an arrest warrant for that suspect later on.

PLANTINGA: That can be hard to do, but these are interesting times we find ourselves in.

KASTE: But people should not count on getting let off. In some circumstances, the authorities might want to make an example of them. Take the two women who allegedly robbed a drugstore in San Francisco in early April. John Bennett is the special agent in charge of the FBI office there.

JOHN BENNETT: There were individuals that walked into a Walgreens and decided that they were going to announce to everybody that they had COVID and then proceeded to cough on people as they removed items from the shelf and walked out the door.

KASTE: This drugstore caper is now a federal case. The U.S. attorney is charging the women with interfering with interstate commerce. Bennett says the feds got involved to protect essential workers.

BENNETT: Because these individuals were specifically using the threat of a virus in order to conduct criminal activity, that's where the game changes, and that's where the FBI can get involved.

KASTE: Some people are hoping that this crisis will inspire a more forgiving attitude from police. Natasha Moore is on Seattle's Community Police Commission, which has lobbied for measures such as relaxed parking enforcement. She says it's now developing training to help police and others better handle people who are feeling traumatized.

NATASHA MOORE: I could assume that people aren't in their right mind right now with everything that's going on, just try to maintain and be present, and it's a difficult time right now to do that.

KASTE: At the same time, there are also some worries that social distancing by the police has created an opening for some violent criminals. In Omaha, Captain Shaffer says felony assaults and homicides went up, and in one neighborhood, shot spotter detectors picked up almost twice as many gunshots in March.

SHAFFER: I think the criminal element - I'd be remiss if they didn't notice the lack of cruisers out on traffic stops. And that's just one piece, but I think that that, over time, is kind of like, hey, we've got a better chance to maybe go from point A to point B and not get pulled over.

KASTE: But he says the department is now adjusting, beefing up its gang enforcement and getting officers enough PPEs and hand sanitizer so they can go back to what he calls more proactive policing.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.