Police officers get up close and personal with other people’s bodies. During my time on patrol, I put my hands into strangers’ pockets during searches; ran my fingers inside waistbands, bra bands and shoes; put handcuffs onto wrists and held those I was arresting by the arm as I escorted them to the patrol car. People coughed, sneezed, vomited and bled on me. Sometimes, they shoved me or spat at me. Other times, they hugged me or cried on my shoulder. A handcuffed, half-dressed woman once asked me to stuff her breasts back into her bodysuit; another time, a shoplifter begged me to help her rinse her feces-stained pants in a supermarket bathroom so she wouldn’t go to jail in soiled clothes.
Rookie cops learn fast to carry extra nitrile gloves and hand sanitizer. In normal circumstances, that’s usually good enough.
Circumstances today are far from normal. At a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises keeping at least six feet away from others, high-contact police practices such as stops, searches and arrests create a risk of infection for everyone involved.
Evidence so far suggests that police officers and those they arrest are far more likely to test positive for the novel coronavirus than other Americans. In New York City, some 7,000 police officers — about 20 percent of the force — called out sick earlier this month, with nearly 2,000 testing positive for the coronavirus and thousands more forced to self-quarantine after exposure. Corrections officers, too, appear to have much higher rates of infection than the general public. As of Thursday, the infection rate for prisoners in New York City jails was about 9.7 percent, vs. some 1.7 percent for the city overall, according to the Legal Aid Society.
High rates of infection among police officers, suspects and jail personnel suggest that normal policing practices — in particular, arrests and imprisonment — may contribute to the spread of covid-19. This ultimately places all of us at risk. Police officers and guards return to their neighborhoods and families each day, and those who have been arrested are released on bail or after serving their sentences. Sooner or later, this viral disease makes it way around.
For safety reasons, many standard policing practices should be radically reconsidered during the covid-19 threat. In a white paper published this month by Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program and Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, my colleague Christy Lopez and I argue that law enforcement agencies should immediately suspend enforcement measures that require physical contact between law enforcement personnel and members of the public, except in cases where the failure to stop, search or arrest a suspect would create an imminent danger of death or serious injury.
Even in pre-pandemic times, the impact that arrests and incarceration have on public safety is debatable, at best, when it comes to minor crimes. Is making an arrest for petty theft, public drunkenness or marijuana possession worth endangering the lives of police officers, suspects, jail personnel and other community members? In particular, stay-at-home orders should not be enforced through arrests. Most people who violate the orders do so out of ignorance, and arresting and jailing such scofflaws risks greater spread of infection.
Cutting back on arrests is, judging by existing evidence, unlikely to lead to more serious crime. The scale of the covid-19 crisis, meanwhile, dwarfs the public safety threat posed by violent crime. Already, covid-19 has killed more than 50,000 Americans, more than three times the number of homicides in 2018.
Many police departments and municipalities, including in the Washington region, have changed their policies to reduce custodial arrests and jail populations. In some cities, officers are being deployed to educate residents about the importance of social distancing and to help connect vulnerable people to medical assistance, emergency food aid or other vital services.
Police officers’ most fundamental mission is to promote public safety. Law enforcement leaders can’t afford to ignore these infection and death rates. Sometimes officers must go “hands on” while conducting searches or making arrests. But when close physical contact risks spreading a lethal virus, the opposite approach is called for. Except in cases involving serious violent crimes, police officers nationwide need to go hands-off.