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March 18, 2020; The Marshall Project

As COVID-19 changes practically everything, it makes sense that police officers are also now in the uncomfortable position of having to figure out new approaches to their ongoing work. The Marshall Project—a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the US criminal justice system—came out with an interesting story last week that highlights the rebalancing that is now a part of regular decision-making for police officers at all levels.

Because the country was caught unprepared for the onslaught of this virus, police officers nationwide, just like staff in medical facilities and homeless shelters, are now having to make challenging on-the-ground decisions while still doing their jobs. Focusing on Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, which employs 3,800 officers, The Marshall Project’s story conveys the uncertainty that clouds the daily routine of a police officer’s job now. whether a person taken into custody is infected, whether more disinfecting supplies will be delivered to stations, and what happens when more police officers themselves become infected.

According to the story, protective gear for police remains scarce in DC, and the city’s department doesn’t have the “doesn’t have ‘Coronavirus Kits’—packs of hand sanitizer, rubber gloves, and N95 masks—that police in places such as Santa Clara, California, now have.” Detective Qiao Zhang told The Marshall Project, “I’ve heard that the department has masks, but I have not seen any or received any.” He adds, “It’s worrying. We have to follow up at people’s houses and in hospitals.”

Just as department leaders now must reassess the responsibilities of their forces, on-the-ground officers are now need to weigh “traditional bravado versus new caution.” Providing broader national context, the story notes that other police departments have been halting arrests of most nonviolent offenders.

In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham alerted his department that regular cleanings would be increased in stations throughout the city and that he has made more requests for cleaning supplies and protective gear. In other cities, “at least four departments have cancelled roll call or…started meeting outside.”

A scarcity of hand sanitizer within the Chicago Police Department, the nation’s second-largest, led the city’s Fraternal Order of Police to begin appealing to the private sector for backup support. The organization provides some online guidance for officers about COVID-19 but, as a possible indication of the flood of inquiries on this topic that it has received, there has not been an update to the first post on March 12th.—Anne Eigeman