Already, the U.S. armed forces are providing important help here at home in the struggle against the novel coronavirus. Well over 10,000 members of the Army National Guard and Air Force National Guard have been mobilized to help with setting up more hospital capacity, transporting supplies and providing other services. Other personnel who have “Individual Ready Reserve” status are being activated to take advantage of their particular skills in medicine or other crucial fields. They are typically doing so under Title 32 of the U.S. code, whereby they are paid by the federal government but controlled by the governors of the states where they operate.
There is potentially a much larger, and more fraught, role for the armed forces in this crisis: They might need to backstop and backfill police forces. With 15 percent of the New York City Police Department recently reporting sick due to illness or self-quarantine, and even higher absentee rates reported elsewhere, hard-hit communities might soon need major assistance with patrolling streets, enforcing restrictions on movement, deterring crime and other tasks. Such police work is legal for the National Guard, though not the active-duty military, under the 1878 Posse Comitatus law. And it might be the most prudent thing we can do to reduce the risk of deteriorating social stability and security.
Clearly, this step would be momentous. If not handled well, it could jeopardize not only the trust communities have in their police forces but also the standing of the military in society. Conspiracy theorists falsely predicting martial law would have a field day. Beyond these intangibles, there will be concrete, difficult situations to manage — as can already be seen, for example, in the decision by the governor of Rhode Island to use police and Guard personnel to monitor individuals crossing the border from New York.
It is not an easy task to prepare a warrior, trained to fight a hostile enemy abroad, to protect the American population at home. True, many of today’s Guard previously deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, where U.S. doctrine emphasized protection of the local population as a core part of the mission. However, there is an enormous difference between sniffing out al-Qaeda fighters on the streets of Ramadi or Baghdad and talking down, or if necessary properly arresting, fellow Americans who have had too much to drink, or thrown a punch, or even pulled a gun. Or who, frustrated with life in the time of the coronavirus, are simply blowing off steam.
If and when covid-19 takes down much of any given police force in coming weeks, it will happen fast, and the risk to social stability will increase quickly. There might be only a week of warning before a serious depletion of a city’s finest — thinking of not just New York but Detroit or Newark or Miami or St. Louis — occurs. At that point, we won’t have time to put Guard personnel through the normal 10-to-12-week police field training process.
The only responsible thing to do is to start preparing now:
● Police departments should make plans for apprentice-like training of Guard personnel who probably know a lot about how to wear body armor, operate weapons, maintain discipline, use communications systems and work long hours — but who probably know much less about easing tense civic situations, handling suspects while presuming innocence and securing evidence.
● As a central element of this training, and subsequent operations, civilian officers should be paired with Guard members in standard police operations. There is too much to learn for the Guard to quickly form its own autonomous teams; on-the-job teaming and mentoring throughout the crisis period will be essential.
● Simple methods of instruction should be assembled immediately; existing online resources, including taped webinars, can explain general concepts as well as methods for handling specific tactical situations. Importantly, these should emphasize the principles of community policing that American cities have developed over the past three decades — as the nation has experienced its most dramatic reductions in crime rates in its history, progress that must not be lost now.
● Local, state and federal leaders need to back this plan — with funding, but just as importantly, with their full moral and rhetorical support. Citizens are going to be highly anxious about any plan that puts our military on the streets, especially since that scenario would likely occur after tens of thousands of Americans had died of the virus, and civic institutions would be teetering.
With luck, most of the prudent steps outlined above will not need to be put into practice. But it would be foolhardy to assume that will be the case.