As the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis wreaks havoc around the world, it upends traditional pillars of society. Gun sales are through the roof as people continue to panic buy; there is a potential ammo shortage; and the U.S. Navy’s Hospital Ships are now being called upon. It’s a weird disruption to our normal way of life, but this COVID-19 disruption includes law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
With economies ground to a halt and some in the United States predicating unemployment rates to rival those of the Great Depression, fear has become as pervasive and overwhelming as COVID-19 is around the world. The difference being that we are addressing the effects of COVID-19. Meanwhile, we de-prioritize everything else, including crime.
COVID-19 Brings Law Enforcement Challenges
This de-prioritization gives rise to some unorthodox, and typically unheard of, risk mitigation measures that the criminal justice system is taking. Each will have a direct impact on crime and public safety for the foreseeable future.
Law enforcement agencies around the nation are attempting to conform with the Center of Disease Control (CDC) guidance for law enforcement, which lays out general safety and personnel protective measures law enforcement should follow during this pandemic. In order to do so, they have “prioritized” or “modified” calls for service.
Minimizing LE Contact
The order minimizes situations where officers interact with people, limiting potential for COVID-19 exposure. However, law enforcement agencies around the nation had already been grappling with staffing issues. Now departments add exposing officers and quarantining staff to the already critical staffing crisis within law enforcement.
In many departments, “calls for service” modifications include officers will only respond to active “in progress” calls; these typically constitute a violent crime in progress. Non-emergency and business calls for service will take place over the phone. Non-injury, private property accidents won’t get an officer’s response. Instead, authorities will direct callers to exchange insurance information with the other vehicle owner. If a medical call comes in, now EMS must also respond, but must do so within the context of the CDC guidance.
Turning Prisoners Loose
To make matters worse, at least five states announced the release of prisoners from jails. The fear of “jail contamination” spirals in the news as some push a prison population reduction agenda under fear -based circumstances. California announced another wave of prisoner releases from Alameda County, discharging 247 prisoners. Los Angeles jails, which to date report no coronavirus cases, released more than 1,000 prisoners, dropping its prisoner population from 17,076 to 16,017 inmates.
In Chicago, the murder rate through March 20 already surpassed last year’s totals, up 43 percent. But the city decided to release non-violent offenders in detention due to coronavirus fears. There are also calls for releasing federal prisoners due to pandemic fears. The federal prison system allegedly reported its first positive COVID-19 cases.
Prisoner Release Impacts
This puts more and more criminals back onto the streets, often in areas like Chicago that are already experiencing a rising violent crime. A flood of prisoners also potentially strains job markets, housing, medical and monitoring. With “lock downs” in place in many states, support for newly released prisoners could be non-existent. Lack of support may add to the reintegration stressors released prisoners already typically feel.
To make matters worse, as we add criminals back onto the streets of America, courts around the country—federal, state and local—have either closed, minimized, or modified their operations. The D.C. Superior Court shut down all proceedings except those “deemed absolutely essential” after a deputy U.S. marshal stationed at the courthouse tested positive for COVID-19.
Additionally, the Supreme Court suspended all oral arguments due to the pandemic. This court shutdown will surely result in a backlog of court cases, judicial hearings, and court functions. New cases also won’t even be heard, which sends law enforcement a clear message not to bother making arrests.
Keeping Everyone Safe
The ACLU recently sent a letter to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), stating: “The same social distancing principles guiding public and private sector responses should guide the BOP’s response and ensure that its facilities do not unnecessarily bring people into confined spaces that may lead to greater exposure to coronavirus. Deliberate action must be taken to meet the responsibility to ensure the health of those incarcerated in the federal system.”
All corners of American society are being told to shelter in place, close businesses, close court and minimize police contact with the public. So, is releasing prisoners the smartest move to protect them and the rest of the American public?
As our nation responds to the COVID-19 challenges, protecting all lives remains of paramount importance for law enforcement. But we must stay mindful. If you stop fighting crime, crime will still fight back.