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Policing in pandemics

03rd December 2021

“Error is the price we pay for progress.” ― Alfred North Whitehead

Researchers around the world for years have studied the effects of disasters and public health emergencies on policing organisations.

The core question now, during this acute pandemic, is what short-term and long-term recommendations have arisen from all this research, and how can we use it to navigate the road ahead.

Good research takes a while, so there isn’t much out there yet on pandemics like Covid-19. However, researchers have studied police responses to other public health emergencies and natural disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, outbreaks of Ebola, the flu, HIV, and more.

Through a review of the best practices identified in the literature for policing such emergencies, the following four issues have emerged:

  • police-community relations

  • the mental health and wellbeing of officers

  • intra-organisational challenges,

  • and inter-agency collaboration and cooperation

I will explore these in more detail here.

Police-community relations

Research from nine studies, mostly on natural disasters, gives us three sets of recommendations.

To improve community compliance:

  • Police can put resource into understanding citizens’ changing behaviours across time, from a reluctance to follow guidelines to breaking measures as a form of protest.

  • This especially pertains to where socio-economically disadvantaged communities will be disproportionately affected as time goes on (e.g. with ongoing support funding cuts), and so where pro-active engagement will help build relations before resistance against police can build.

In terms of navigating different roles for police:

  • In acute stages, such as early lockdowns, the police can use their discretion to prioritise the maintenance of public order over a heavy-handed ‘legalistic’ style of policing. This is something we have already seen in Scotland and it’s good to see the recommendations mirroring practice.

  • Care should be taken via PR teams to avoid the media highlighting the police’s role in actual or perceived shortcomings in ‘empathy’ towards communities (e.g. visiting dying family members or humanely treating infected persons), which can impact public trust.

  • Plans need to be put in place to provide accurate situational information and space needs to be provided to combat misinformation which officers have encountered.

Crisis communication is the final element of police-community relations highlighted here:

  • A first recommendation is funding engagement on social media with the community, as this is where fast-moving communications can be shared, as well as tackling misinformation early, providing reassurance, pushing correct information, and helping build a sense of community resilience in partnership with police.

  • This requires both training for flexibility in response as well as preparing agreed rapid-rollout processes for social media engagement, such as those to quickly tackle misinformation; the latter needs funded, redesigned, and improved continually over prolonged periods of crisis.

  • This is a two-way process; a good presence on social media also helps provide early indications of emerging strains on police-community relations (such as anti-lockdown protests or civil disobedience of mandates).

Police psychological health and wellbeing

The second group of conclusions focuses on the toll that the external stress of a pandemic takes on police officers. This includes:

  • The heightened and continuous anxiety about being in a public-facing role during a dangerous time of infection or with decreasing public compliance.

  • Increased workload, lack of rest, distance from family, and high-risk expectations.

  • A continuous need to acknowledge the work of police officers to increase job satisfaction, as well as providing social support and maintaining officer well-being.

24 studies looked at this issue of psychological health across different disasters and emergencies, which drew the following recommendations:

  • Continue to embed pre-crisis training policies to develop the skills needed for officers to prevent mental health problems.

  • Encourage the reporting of mental health complaints and de-stigmatise the effects of high-stress events like a pandemic on mental health.

  • Recognise and enhance the social networks available to police amongst their fellow officers, as research has found a ‘police culture’ of social support from peers and supervisors helps increase resilience against external stress.

  • Rapidly expand appropriate interventions, such as counselling services, to officers and staff affected by Covid-19.

  • Dedicate adequate mental health resources to police officers and their families during and in the aftermath of Covid-19 to address officers’ ongoing and changing anxieties.

Internal organisation and resourcing

Challenges of internal organisation often arise because pre-disaster planning can never be fully perfect, but the best plans can help stop unnecessary ad hoc decisions.

22 studies have reviewed this issue, coming to the following recommendations:

  • Partner with experts early on to set realistic expectations of the police’s role in public health emergencies at different stages of a multi-wave pandemic.

  • Make sure plans are not just for the police also take physical and human resources into account.

  • Determine minimum staff levels with adequate resting periods and support mechanisms. Ongoing disaster protocols will also need to prioritise stress reduction and workload management more highly than in standard protocols.

  • Work-from-home policies should be allowed for officers where possible in risk groups to protect their health and alleviate administrative burdens.

  • Proactively prepare for campaigns to communicate crime prevention efforts clearly to the public, to reduce the additional demand from Covid-19-related crimes.

And, of course, the literature recommends triaging activities and ensuring tasks are continually prioritised.

Multi-agency collaboration

Finally, pandemics are complex and require coordinated operations. Common issues have been identified with regards to multi-partner collaboration with the police, including the need to maintain a national communication infrastructure that facilitates collaboration, and to critically assess shortcomings and issues of inter-agency collaboration and communication in an ongoing manner.

Most relevant today is the recommendation to repeatedly take stock of collaborative efforts and the most frequent interactions with partners, so that the police can:

  • Allow for joint exercises and a strengthening of the relationships after the crisis.

  • Undertake future planning with civil society groups and community organisations which are either new themselves or just new to collaborating with the police.

Many recommendations here should be familiar and some may well be old hat, but at least there is evidence of their need, and ideally there are some which will have sparked off further thoughts for you.

Peter Watson shared these insights at EuroCOP alongside Sir Harry Burns, professor of global public health at the University of Strathclyde.

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