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Policing the pandemic: Managing the police response to COVID-19 Coronavirus

Professor Karl Roberts is a consultant on health security, law enforcement and policing for the World Health Organization. In this exclusive article for the U.K.'s Policing Insight, generously shared by its editors with Blue Line here in Canada, he examines the different roles police may have during a pandemic and the challenges this creates alongside some suggested approaches to developing the police response.

March 25, 2020  By Karl Roberts

Photo: Getty Images

Today the world is grappling with a global pandemic, COVID-19. This has caused much debate on the levels of preparedness of governments, health services, and the general population to deal with the challenges this virus represents.

However, within all of this debate relatively little discussion has considered the role of the police in pandemics. This is very surprising because for many people the police are the emergency service of last resort and would therefore be expected to be substantially involved in any response. The purpose of this article is then, to explore some of the different roles police may have during pandemics and some of the challenges that this creates, although this is not intended as an exhaustive list. The article also aims to suggest some approaches to the development of police response in the complex context created by pandemics. In doing this it is hoped that this article might aid police involved in the very difficult task of planning their responses to COVID-19.

National pandemic plans and policing

Most nations have created pandemic plans detailing their proposed responses to pandemic influenza. Many of these plans have formed the basis of national level responses to COVID-19. Whilst most plans consider the roles of public health authorities, medicine, hospitals and other functions of government, there is generally little mention of the role of police. In plans that do make any mention of police roles this is typically in broad and general terms, often noting that the police will carry out their usual duties, assisting and supporting other agencies where possible.

This lack of specificity regarding the role of police presents a significant challenge. On the one hand lack of specificity means that police responses can be flexible, they are not constrained to a particular set of activities and their roles may be free to change over time. On the other hand, vague and ill-defined terminology could also translate into very wide-ranging expectations of the police that can very easily overwhelm their capacity to carry them out.


One particular outcome of the lack of specificity concerning the police is that they have to be ready to negotiate their roles with stakeholders and prioritize certain functions over others however much they wish to satisfy all the demands placed upon them. This may mean making difficult decisions about what are core functions during a pandemic, what functions can be reduced or curtailed and the extent to which police have the capacity and capability to respond to requests for their support from other agencies and the public. Importantly, the decisions that are made are likely to have a significant impact upon the relationship of the police with their stakeholders both during a pandemic and into the future.

Police and public health engagement

During a pandemic, police are likely to have to engage with public health officials for a range of different reasons. Where pandemic plans are vague on the role of police this can lead to significant challenges such as ‘turf wars’ or lack of clarity in who has the lead and who has what responsibility.

The relationships between police and public health therefore need to be carefully negotiated so that there is clarity in responsibilities and actions. There may be a need to share intelligence between different agencies, for example the police may have intelligence that is significant for contact tracing by public health, or public health officials may have knowledge about potentially criminal behaviour of interest to police.

How, and the extent to which such intelligence is shared can be challenging. Challenges are often related to issues of (dis)trust between members of different agencies relating to differences in security protocols and beliefs about another agency’s (lack of) security provision. As sharing of intelligence can be crucial to protecting the public, where there is a lack of clarity, it is crucial agencies urgently negotiate their relationships and identify effective intelligence sharing protocols.

Challenges for everyday policing

As stated, the expectation in most pandemic plans is that the police will conduct their usual, everyday activities. Within the context of this ‘business as usual’ approach there are a number of functions expected of police. Even during a pandemic, police would expect to be involved in maintaining public order and preventing and investigating crime. However, a pandemic may present a number of significant challenges to the capacity of police to carry out these day-to-day functions.


One major issue is staff absenteeism. A pandemic such as COVID-19, where most people have little or no immunity, is likely to mean that the rates of inflection among police are likely to be at least as high as within the non-police population. It is also possible that some areas of policing specialization may experience disproportionately higher rates of infection meaning that absenteeism may be unevenly spread throughout an organization. For example, those with greatest engagement with the public such as frontline officers may be at more risk of exposure to a virus than others. Some police forces have modeled the likely absentee rate in the case of an influenza pandemic and estimates range from 10 to 80 percent of staff absent during the course of a pandemic. Clearly, whatever the actual rate of absenteeism, this will inevitably place a strain on police resources and the capability and capacity of police to deliver all services expected of them.

Infection risk mitigation

A response to the challenge of absenteeism is to minimize the risk of police becoming exposed to a virus. There are a number of ways to do this including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), regular hand washing, and social distancing. All of these methods of infection control present significant challenges to police functions.

Personal Protective Equipment

PPE such as goggles, gloves, face masks and body coverings are used by medical staff to prevent infection and a strong argument has been made for the deployment of such equipment to police. There are however challenges concerning the availability and use of PPE. In the current COVID-19 pandemic there have already been concerns expressed in some areas about a shortage of suitable PPE for medical staff, let alone police officers, and this is only likely to be more challenging as the rates of infection increase. Where police officers are supplied with PPE, they need to be competent in how to use it effectively, including safe fitting and safe disposal of used equipment. Failure to use PPE correctly presents a significant risk of infection.

There is also a challenge of the suitability of PPE for police officers. Whilst gloves, masks and goggles may be very useful for medical staff treating sick and often immobile patients, such materials may not necessarily be conducive to all of the activities police carry out. Indeed, PPE is most effective for single use followed by careful disposal. It is an open question how practical this is for police officers engaged in everyday duties, in particular they would need access to several changes of PPE and a safe way of disposing of used materials. In addition, it is unclear how practical PPE would be for everyday police work. Should officers wear this equipment for every interaction with members of the public and are there situations where wearing PPE is a barrier to effective policing? For example, it is not clear how practical it would be for police to wear PPE if involved in policing public order situations, particularly in view of the need to change this equipment regularly to maintain its efficacy.

Infection control

Whist regularly hand washing, and social distancing are important methods of infection control, it is a challenge for many police officers to do this, especially in a job that requires frequent, and often close, interaction with members of the public. There are many policing tasks that may increase the risk of infection. For example, breathalyzers may raise the risk of infection because many viruses, including COVID-19, are spread within aerosol droplets. To minimize risk officers should perhaps use breathalyzers sparingly, find a new test (although this may bring challenges regarding its acceptability to the courts) or even not test suspects at all. However, any decision not to use such tests may have a range of other implications. These might include, the prospect of police not testing suspected drunk drivers and the political implications of this or bringing in all suspected drunk drivers into a police station for testing leading to a range of other challenges such as overcrowding and issues in infection control. Encouraging sick officers or those who feel that they may be sick to remain at home is another important form of infection control for the workplace, but does little to mitigate the challenges of absenteeism to police capacity.

Other infection control measures might include extra cleaning of police premises and vehicles, although it is far from clear how often this should be done and how practical this would be. Restricting access to police premises for members of the public and requiring them to demonstrate that they are well to gain access is another infection control strategy.

The practicalities of restricting physical access to police and police premises are however challenging, for example who would carry out an assessment of the health of attendees to a police station? Restricting access is also a major challenge for victims of crime, and crime witnesses. For example, victims of sexual assault may need to be physically examined as part of an investigation, and many victims and witnesses are reassured by being in contact with police. In restricting access, police may also have to utilize new technologies such as video conferencing, electronic and social media to facilitate crime reporting, interviewing of victims and witnesses (and potentially some suspects). However restricting access may ultimately damage the relationship of a number of stakeholders with the police.

Normal policing activities at times require the arrest of individuals. The police may be exposing themselves to risk of infection in the process of an arrest, in transporting an arrestee and in bringing them to a police station. However, due criminal legal process suggests that an arrestee should be transported to a suitable place of detention such as a police station, as soon as possible after arrest. In order to reduce risk, the health status of the arrestee will need to be ascertained. It is not however clear who should do this or when it is practical to do it. Indeed, would this be the responsibility of the arresting officers and would this have to be done prior to transporting them to a police station? If so, how practical is it to do this, especially in a case where the arrestee was not compliant with police.

Additional policing activities

In addition to core policing activities, there are a number of activities that have been suggested could fall within the responsibility of police during a pandemic. These include, policing curfews and protecting medical staff and supplies. Clearly these additional activities add an extra burden to likely stretched resources. They also expose police staff to increased risk of infection and must be considered in the light of other pressing demands upon police time. Having said that, the open question if the police do not carry out these tasks is who else would? The military could be used but this might be challenging for many social democracies to have them conducting policing tasks. Use of the military also brings challenges concerning the relationship between police and the military in terms of jurisdiction and responsibility.

Policing curfews is a particular challenge. Few Western police forces have much experience of doing this and there are a number of issues that they need to consider. It is important to realize that the task of policing curfews is likely to get increasingly more difficult over time as populations become skeptical of a curfew’s value and bored or frustrated with their freedom being curtailed. If policing curfews is done unfairly or in a too draconian, militaristic or even violent manner, it can result in significant reputational damage to police and loss of public trust.

Relatedly, another challenge is the policing of exceptions to a curfew. It is an important to be clear who grants these and on what grounds. Especially important is how fairly they are policed. Again, it is important that exception decisions seen as fair and made in a transparent non-random manner, and that they do not show any favouritism.

As the emergency service of last resort police might also become involved in transporting very sick individuals to hospital should ambulance services become overburdened. Again, this presents increased exposure to illness, especially as those requiring transportation are likely to be the most ill. Police may also be asked to transport medical equipment, supplies and medical samples. Knowing how to safely transport these items is important and failing to do this correctly might itself increase risk of infection.

Police may be required to support public health staff in contact tracing and also in enforcing public health orders such as obtaining access to premises or forced vaccination. Police are rarely involved in such activities and so there may be a need for clarification of exactly what their role is in support of public health, how this can be conducted safely, and clarification of relevant legislation. Contact tracing may also present other challenges especially where police need to trace contacts in hard to reach populations.

Such groups might include homeless persons, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Many individuals within these groups may have a significant distrust of police and the process of identifying and approaching them, whilst of vital concern to public health interventions, may be difficult, consume limited police resources and may raise risks of infection.

In extremis, where hospital facilities are overburdened, there may be instances of uncertified deaths in the community. As one of the roles of police is to ensure that any sudden death is not suspicious, an investigation of the death would be needed. The capacity of police to be able to conduct these during a pandemic is unclear and decisions may need to be made as to how viable such work would be.

Changes in crime patterns

During pandemics there may be changes in crime patterns that are likely to be influential upon the police deployment of resources. As regards absolute levels of crime it is difficult to predict how they may change during a pandemic. Quarantine and curfew may serve to reduce crime whereas opportunities for new types of crime may evolve. New forms of criminality evolve where individuals attempt to exploit the situation. For example, in the current COVID-19 pandemic there has been instances of thefts of medical supplies, and there are warnings of organized crime groups exploiting vulnerabilities by selling fake medicines. Where individuals are encouraged to stay at home this may raise opportunities for the targeting of empty premises such as shops or factories for both theft of items and criminal damage. There may also be increases in rates of domestic abuse as individuals spend more time in the home and possible increases in violence and public order offences due to disputes over scarce resources and restricted medical care. Regardless of how crime changes, the police will have a central role in devising strategies to deal with it, and in setting priorities. This may require new approaches towards crime prevention and investigation.

Effects on the criminal justice system

During a pandemic likely absenteeism and infection controls may significantly impact the capacity and capability of the criminal justice system. Courts may have to prioritize certain cases at the expense of others. This will impact police and they may be required to make decisions about which offences have a reasonable chance of being prosecuted and even, in the light of this, which are worth investigating. Decisions here will have a significant impact upon public perceptions of police and any changes to priorities will need to be carefully considered. The trust of the public is vital for the police to be seen as legitimate holders of power and if trust is lost there is a risk of losing public cooperation.
Use of discretionary powers

Given challenges to the capacity of the criminal justice system, police may have to make greater use of their discretionary powers, greater use of cautions and on the spot fines, and other methods of disposal.

However, it is important that the public sees a consistent approach to this. Should the public become aware of inconsistencies in the application of discretion and other methods of disposal, this will be a significant threat to trust in the police. This therefore suggests that there is a need for clear policies concerning the use of discretion that are based upon policing priorities and that are capable of being clearly articulated to stakeholders.


Communication with stakeholders is very important. The nature of the communication has a significant impact upon trust and cooperation with those in authority. As regards the public, it is critical that police maintain a dialogue with communities at all levels. This is so that policies and decisions can be explained. Much research has signaled the significance of procedural justice in influencing trust and cooperation and central to this is the use of fair and transparent procedures that are clearly communicated to those that are affected. In addition, establishing a two-way dialogue with stakeholders is important as this allows them to have a voice in the interaction with police and express their concerns and fears. Communication is also significant within police services, and the same considerations as described above apply for leaders communicating with subordinates.

In communication with stakeholders it is also very important that police are realistic about what they are doing, why and the limitations and uncertainties that they are experiencing. Admitting uncertainty is difficult, and admitting mistakes more so, but communicating these in a realistic manner, stressing the context of uncertainty, and the attempts to give the best possible service is likely to pay dividends in future reputational gains, especially in terms of trust. Often there is a temptation to hide bad news and claim that all is fine in a mistaken belief that this protects reputation. However, where stakeholders identify economies with the truth, trust and legitimacy are damaged, cooperation can be withdrawn by stakeholders and these are very difficult to regain.

Effects of pandemics on police staff

In responding to the needs of society it is easy to forget the toll that policing a pandemic may take upon police officers. For this reason, police organizations also need to be mindful of the impact upon their members. Failure to do this is likely to result in higher levels of absenteeism than otherwise would be expected, through a mixture of infection, other illnesses including stress and trauma, burnout and breakdown in morale.

Police organizations need to manage the expected rates of infection among staff and allow staff to remain at home to prevent further infections if they become or suspect that they are ill. As discussed, with limited resources police are likely to be expected to carry out their usual duties as well as a range of other tasks that may default to them, substantially increasing normal workloads. Officers are likely to be mindful of their own safety particularly avoiding infection, the safety of colleagues and family members. They are also likely to be exhausted from long work hours.

This could predicate a rise in the experience of occupational stress. There is also a significant risk of psychological trauma as a result of officers seeing deaths on a large scale and dealing with grief, anxiety and anger within the community (and potentially in their own homes).

Use by managers of excessively bureaucratic or autocratic leadership styles in these circumstances is likely to compound matters as these approaches have been shown to be associated with increases in workplace stress, burnout and absenteeism.

How staff work patterns are structured, how adequately breaks from work and leave are managed with a diminished workforce, how supportive and procedurally-just the leadership and management can be, how flexible officers can be in their responses to events and situations, and the adequacy of any occupational health support that is provided are key considerations in the maintenance of staff well-being during a pandemic.

Duration of a pandemic

A significant consideration for police is that it is unclear for how long a pandemic may continue. This means that long term planning may be difficult if not impossible. It may therefore be impossible to predict changes in workforce or the level of demand that is placed upon the police. In such circumstances planning may have to be subject to continuous review and frequent change as new circumstances evolve.

A new paradigm for policing?

Given the uncertainty and myriad challenges raised by pandemics, it is perhaps true to say that policing pandemics represents a new paradigm in policing. As with all new paradigms new thinking is likely to be required as many tightly held assumptions about policing and what works may no longer apply. Indeed, whilst some traditional approaches to policing may well remain valid, it is important to recognize that avoiding an over-reliance upon repeating the ‘tried and tested’ and a desire to try new ideas is fundamental.

Beyond policing: pandemic policing and society

Pandemics remind us all of the interconnectedness of societies and it is important to remember that police are a part of this complex social system, not separate from it. Thus, whilst it is clearly important that police focus upon their policing roles and how best to manage their own professional challenges, it is also important that they do not lose sight of their broader role in society and accept the importance of it.

This means that within the new paradigm created by pandemics, perhaps some of the less tangible aspects of policing such as visibility of police, reassurance of the public, and providing advice and support, may take on far greater social significance. This is because within uncertain times individuals look for guidance, protection and stability, signals that their world is at least in part predictable, and that there is at least some consistency. The presence of (especially uniformed) police on the streets arguably provides some of this. It provides someone to turn to, who is there to help and who can offer protection i.e. police on the streets provide a signal of some reassurance. Of course, challenges such as reduced capacity can significantly affect the ability to provide ‘visibility,’ reassurance, and advice and support. However, the important social value of this mean that methods to maximize public reassurance may need to be prioritized.

Pandemics and best practice

It is clear that Pandemics such as COVID-19 present significant, sustained and substantial challenges for police. However, it is difficult to present specific recommendations regarding best practice in how to respond to the challenges. This is for a number of reasons.

Police, and society in general, have faced very few pandemics in the modern age, and so there is a dearth of data on which to draw to identify best practices. The ill-defined nature of the police role within pandemics is another difficulty in providing concrete recommendations. This is because roles and expectations can change substantially, both as a result of the changing needs of governments and society, and the needs of the police themselves as the context of a pandemic changes

Perhaps most significantly, a major limitation to proving best practice advice is that pandemics are complex events. This means that they are dynamic, often unpredictable, and subject to considerable rapid change, where any actions can have a range of both intended and unintended consequences.

The dynamic nature of pandemics means that a strategy that may be best practice in the current circumstances may be ineffectual, or worse, may be damaging as the circumstances change and evolve. For example, imposing a curfew might be a successful strategy designed to control infection spread in the short term. However, in the longer term it may prove counterproductive should the public become disenchanted with the curtailment of their freedom, perhaps leading to increased lawlessness as people break the curfew and an increased infection risk.

Complex situations also present us with a range of wicked problems, where strategies aimed at solving one aspect of a problem may result in a range of unintended consequences, some of which create other challenges. For example, forgoing breathalyzing drink driving suspects might be prudent with regard to infection control, but this may have an unintended consequence of increasing rates of drink driving. Taken together the characteristics of pandemics mean that decision making, and strategy development is very difficult and the rigid application of so-called best practice solutions can be inappropriate and potentially risky.

Policing pandemics

Given all of this what should police do? There are a number of reasonably well-defined and evidence-based approaches to strategy development within complex situations that can act as a guide. It is first important to note that within complexity a rigid and dogmatic use of previously used strategies i.e. adopting a ‘tried and tested’ or ‘best practice’ mindset, is likely to be problematic. This is because such an approach implicitly regards the current situation as both being similar to previous situations and rests on the notion that outcomes can be predicted in the light of past experiences. This is not always the case in complex situations such as a pandemic.

Similarly, a ‘tried and tested’ mindset runs the risk of repeating previous mistakes and failing to develop new approaches. In contrast, strategies need to be mindful that the situation is inherently unpredictable, may change rapidly, and, as stated, strategies that once worked, even those that were successful today, may become problematic. Thus, any strategy needs to be flexible, will need to be reviewed regularly to ascertain its utility, and should be modifiable in the light of changing events.

Due to the dynamic character of complex situations, the capacity to explore the (changing) situation is vital to planning. Planners should therefore ensure that they collect and analyses as wide a range of relevant data and evidence as possible about the how the situation is evolving and the efficacy of any strategy.

Diversity in thinking among planners is also very useful within complex environments. Diverse thinking increases the likelihood of novel strategies being developed, minimizes the risk of repeating failed strategies, and mitigates against the risk of group think among planners.

Finally, planners should not be constrained by fears that their strategies might fail. Often in complex situations it is unclear what the best course of action is. Here doing something, even if it is unclear if it will work, is important. This is because in acting we generate new knowledge about a situation. Indeed, even if an experimental strategy fails, or does not perform as intended, this should not be seen as a disaster. If one collects information and evidence about its efficacy, the resulting increased knowledge about a situation may allow us to improve or design new strategies. Very pertinently, Dr Mike Ryan, World Health Organization head of emergency responses, speaking recently with reference to COVID-19 and emergency responses stated that ‘if you need to be right before you move you will never win … the greatest error is to be paralyzed by fear of failure.”

Summary and conclusion

This article has considered some of the very significant challenges police face when dealing with disease pandemics. Among these challenges are a lack of clarity in what is expected of police, likely reductions in staff levels, attempting to manage infection levels in the context of day to day duties, increased operational demands including new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and the significant physical and psychological toll responding takes upon police staff. All of this is in a context of change and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Given this complexity and uncertainty, police need to be flexible in their responses, willing to explore the situation that they face using a wide range of data and evidence sources. Leaders need to be supportive of staff and avoid draconian, overly bureaucratic or authoritarian approaches to management. Some strategies that are developed in response to a pandemic may be similar to ‘tried and tested’ approaches but police are cautioned that an over reliance on tried and tested strategies is unlikely to prove successful.

Other strategies may be novel and even experimental and need to be monitored as to their efficacy. However, fear of failure should not be allowed to block attempts to respond. Importantly, whatever strategies are deployed by police in response to a pandemic they should all be capable of modification in the light of changing circumstances.

Ultimately what is clear is that flexibility is crucial and that the police will have to make many difficult choices as they attempt to provide the best service they can in the most challenging of circumstances.

Professor Karl Roberts is the consultant of health security, law enforcement and policing for the World Health Organization in Geneva. He is also Professor and Chair of Policing and Criminal Justice, Western Sydney University, Sydney, Australia and Professor of Pacific Policing, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji. Professor Roberts can be contacted at Find his LinkedIn profile here. and his Twitter name is @ProfKARobs.

*Republished with permission from Policing Insight. You can read the original article here. Big thank you to Tina Orr-Munro, editor.

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