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Policing Is Changing In The Age of Social Distancing

One of the few silver linings to this pandemic is that in most places, there's been less crime.

"Calls for service are certainly down," says Sgt. Adam Plantinga of the San Francisco Police Department. "No open bars means there's fewer late-night brawls, and people are home more, so burglars are having a tougher time of it."

Police departments across the country are facing a new reality in the era of coronavirus. As familiar categories of crime fade, officers are being asked to handle unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable new assignments.

In some cities, police are being asked to start enforcing social distancing rules. Over the weekend, Chicago police located and broke up house parties, while the New York Police Department sent 1,000 officers out on "social distancing patrols."

This mostly means having officers walk through public spaces, reminding people to stay 6 feet apart. But there have been some complaints about inequitable enforcement, especially afteran arrest related to social distancing in the East Village became violent. The NYPD said it was investigating the incident.

Police generally dislike doing social distancing duty. "That's not why we got into this profession," says Capt. Tom Shaffer of the Omaha Police Department. "I can speak for all nearly thousand sworn law enforcement officers here: Nobody became a cop so they could go to a bar and grill and say 'You've got 11 people here, you've got to send one home.'"

He's more focused on holding the lid down on an increase in felony assaults and a near-doubling of detected gunshots in a higher-crime part of the city, which coincided with March social distancing orders. He thinks the "criminal element" must have noticed police were doing fewer traffic stops because of precautions against potential coronavirus contamination.

"It's just one piece, but I think that that, over time, is kinda like, 'Hey, we got a better chance to go from point A to point B and not get pulled over,'" he says.

Shaffer says the department has now reassigned more officers to gang enforcement, and with improved supplies of protective gear, he thinks officers are becoming more "proactive" again and interact more with the public.

In Seattle, Natasha Moore works with at-risk youth, and is a member of the city's Community Police Commission. People tell her they're seeing more patrols, though it may just seem that way because the streets are so empty.

"Some people do like the fact that more police are out," she says, "just making sure there's no issues going on."

She says the commission has lobbied for more relaxed enforcement of things like parking enforcement, during this crisis. It's also developing webinar training to help police and others better respond to people who are feeling traumatized.

"I could assume that people aren't in their right mind right now, with everything that's going on," she says.

The pandemic is making things harder for those who try to practice "community policing." Max Geron, a veteran of the Dallas Police Department, was recently hired as the chief of police for the Dallas suburb of Rockwall. He says social distancing took hold just as he was starting his new job, and it was more difficult to establish the personal connections he believes are vital for effective law enforcement.

"It has made it remarkably challenging for someone like me," Geron says. "I would have very quickly into my tenure would have set up community meeting to get out and shake hands... there's only so far you can go with a Zoom meeting."

There are new communications barriers for patrol officers, too, Geron says, in the form of the masks that they and members of the public are wearing. It's especially difficult when officers are trying to deal with someone having an emotional crisis.

"When you're used to seeing and responding to those non-verbal cues and you suddenly take some of those away," Geron says, "it's like you've lost one of your senses.

"I'm really looking forward to when this is hopefully behind us," the new chief says. "And in some way, even if it's a little different, we can go back at least to face-to-face human interaction."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.