COVID-19 Pandemic and the Impact on Managing Policing Resources

The unprecedented challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resources and capabilities of government services across the globe. Law enforcement personnel, who are at the forefront in the fight against the disease and are among those at a high risk of becoming infected, have been particularly affected.

A key hurdle that law enforcement agencies face during a pandemic, is the diminished strength of the workforce. These may occur not only due to actual illness, but also from illness among family members, school closures (combined with lack of child care), public transportation disruptions, low morale or because workers could be summoned to comply with public health obligations such as self-isolation or quarantine.

A lack of available personnel due to absenteeism and illnesses places additional stress on the pool of available officers and can become a limiting factor for even the simplest police operations. Additional workload for healthy officers thus adds to the already existent psychological and physical stress on officers.

A strategic response

To counteract this, many police forces have taken any specific physical and/or mental health needs of officers and employees into account when redistributing workloads. However, adjustments to this extent also have ramifications for operational planning and it may be difficult to find the balance between viable operational planning and maintaining the wellbeing of the workforce. Assuring the latter can include the consideration of adequate resting periods and support mechanisms for officers.

To minimise people shortages during a pandemic, flexibility and new resourcing models are key. Whilst many organisations often rely on established practices of operations during disasters and unprecedented events, in the case of the current pandemic, management practices have needed to be flexible and non-linear.

Though relying on standard operating protocols provides a sense of control and stability, for many policing leaders, it has become key to review operational practices to reflect new developments, especially in light of changing guidance, regulations and other government mandates.

Best practices include creating new shift rotations with smaller self-contained teams on separate shifts and only requiring those scheduled to work to report to their command post. However, such measures can complicate routine policing and should be implemented on a case-by-case basis while keeping operational realities in mind.

Perspectives on concerns and mitigations

In their recent paper ‘Policing a Pandemic’, Zoha Waseem and Julian Laufs from the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL, identified four areas of concern and how they might be mitigated.

  1. The impact on intra-organisational dynamics: Pandemics tend to create resource and employee shortages, whilst driving service demand up. The latter is often increased through a surge of specific crimes such as fraud, the need to enforce crisis-specific measures, and the increased time and effort needed to deal with even minor incidents.
  2. The impact on officer wellbeing: Public health emergencies can increase the likelihood of police officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.
  3. The impact on police community relations: Police-community relations are likely to suffer during a public health emergency. Tensions on both sides might be heightened because officers may have to enforce measures that infringe civil liberties.
  4. The impact on inter-organisational collaboration: Poor communication and a lack of trust between organisations (e.g. because of competing strategic interests) can delay coordination efforts necessary to mitigate the adverse consequences of a crisis.

Waseem and Laufs highlight a number of ways police services can attempt to mitigate these and other potentially adverse effects of COVID-19, which we’ve summarised here. :

  •       Creating new resourcing procedures can help to address employee shortage and absenteeism. This should anticipate further waves of infections amongst the public and staff. Flexible work arrangements ensure the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable officers and their families.
  •       To cope with additional service demands, crime prevention efforts (e.g. preventing COVID-19 specific fraud) should be considered and protection efforts should target those most vulnerable directly (e.g. the elderly).
  •       Leaders should make concerted efforts to acknowledge the work of police officers to increase job satisfaction and provide social support to mitigate the symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety. This should be an ongoing effort and is especially important after the crisis, and something we should all plan for now.
  •       To maintain police-community relations and ensure compliance with public health regulations, adequate strategies should be institutionalised for communication between the police and affected communities. Such communication should be flexible and tailored to when it is taking place: prior to, during or after the pandemic.
  • Agencies should identify existing fault lines in intra- and inter-agency communication and collaboration. Joint training and exercises should be considered to improve preparedness for future public health emergencies and to build intra-agency trust.

A New Kind of Policing Challenge

Examples of global pandemic-era crime trends can provide lessons for practitioners and policymakers on how to prepare and invest in police institutions for better security and handling future threats. With lockdowns, travel restrictions and work-from-home limitations, reported crimes (such as theft and burglary) have declined considerably, but there has been a spike in domestic violence and cybercrime.

COVID-19 compelled police forces across the world to alter their operational strategies and adjust their resources. In France, over 100,000 police and gendarmes patrolled streets to enforce lockdown and fine residents who left shelter without legal reason. Police stopped over 70,000 people and fined around 4,000 the first day of the lockdown. In Italy, police checked 700,000 citizens in just one week in March, over 40,000 of whom were in violation of regulations.

As is clear from these examples, police organisations had to focus on this new challenge at a time when awareness about the potential impact of COVID-19 was gaining traction very slowly.

These efforts also occurred while many police forces were reporting absentee rates in the range of 20 percent due to officers either themselves falling ill with COVID-19 or self-quarantining. In the United Kingdom, retired police officers were asked to return to service to help deal with the crisis. In developing countries, inadequacy of resources and overwhelming responsibilities often hold them back from performing their duties efficiently.

A UK study, “Policing the Lockdown: Domestic Abuse and Vulnerability”, predicts that calls to police will rise sharply in the post-lockdown phase when victims of domestic abuse will have more opportunity to reach out to police safely. It further argues that the financial and domestic stresses caused by the pandemic exacerbate tensions in these situations, leading to more violence. 

Effective police response in such cases requires understanding of the history of the abuse, the nature of the threat to the victim, and insight about the mental state and behaviour pattern of the offender. This requires time and extra police resources, not only to investigate these cases but also to invest in learning more about the impact of the virus on populations.

In many Asian and African states, police forces are being redeployed from rural to urban centres for enforcing lockdowns as most social distancing violations were seen as occurring in densely populated city centres. However, as The Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown argues, this has made rural areas more vulnerable to crimes of opportunity and desperation.

Technology Solutions

Using technology to support ever-changing levels and deployment of resources has been a real benefit to police forces during the pandemic.

For example, West Yorkshire Police have been using the NPS Duty Management solution for some time, but during the pandemic it has really helped the team manage their resources effectively.

‘From my perspective the one thing that NPS Duty Management helped with was the flexibility to enable us to quickly create activities/absence types/date types which meant we were able to accurately capture our absences through sickness or self-isolation and also shielding which then allowed us to ensure we understand our resourcing capabilities.’

More than 60,000 officers and staff use our software daily to book on and off duty and ensure the right resources are available at the right time.

Tools like NPS Duty Management enable you as a policing leader to both plan rosters and respond to real-time events with optimum safety and efficiency built in. The latest version makes reporting easier too, with instant access to data that helps you analyse overtime and unsocial hours so you can better manage costs with employee welfare in mind.

What’s next?

The themes covered demonstrate that the COVID-19 response is ongoing and our police leaders must continue to evolve their plans and responses to mitigate the threats it causes to both our communities and the police workforce.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help your organisation manage its response and leverage smart technology as part of that, get in touch here.