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Social Distancing & Policing During COVID-19

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Officer wearing a surgical mask

There are two primary angles we need to consider when protecting our police officers and citizens from COVID-19 exposure: wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) while on active duty, and adjusting day-to-day operations and protocols when interacting with the public. In this article, we’re focusing on the latter: how to maintain social distancing while on the job.

Just as the public has been asked to maintain CDC social distancing guidelines, law enforcement officers must also take the same precautions when possible. But due to the nature of a police officer’s job, social distancing looks a bit different than your average citizen situation. While always maintaining a high level of situational awareness, here are a few different scenarios and recommended protocols to follow in the field.

Non-emergency situations

When it comes to interacting with the public in a non-arrest, non-confrontational situation:

  • Politely remind the civilian to maintain the 6 feet distance when communicating
  • If the civilian is not wearing a mask as required, ask them to put one on if they have one
  • If they do not have a mask, increase contact distance beyond 6 feet

Responding to scenes (non-emergency)

Whenever possible, collect information for reports remotely to avoid dispatching officers for non-emergency incidents. But if you have to respond to a call of a past crime to take a report, follow the suggestions previously listed for outdoor encounters.

If you must enter a residence or other interior location:

  • Avoid confined areas and move to open spaces to gather information for the report
  • Ask the complainant to wear a mask if they have one
  • Maintain social distancing of 6 feet, or increase the distance if they do not have a mask
  • Wear gloves, but avoid touching anything
  • If a surface is touched, decontaminate the gloves and anything the gloves touched (like the pen used to write notes)

Emergency situations

Emergency situations are a different story, of course, where it gets a little more nuanced to maintain social distancing protocols.

If a civilian runs up to you on the street to report a crime, assess and deal with the safety threat appropriately. Then, enforce social distancing.

For a situation where you must get more hands on, for example, break up a fight, make an arrest, or render medical aid:

  • Follow agency’s use of force guidelines
  • Wear PPE, respirator, goggles and gloves
  • Seek backup assistance from fellow officers (one is none, two is one philosophy)

In addition to all other safety issues an officer regularly faces, they now must be mindful of accidentally removing, damaging, or becoming injured due to the PPE. As a result, agencies should incorporate PPE into their academy’s offensive and defensive tactics training, so officers are more equipped to respond to this additional concern.

Non-compliant subjects

As with all physical encounters, officers must continue to use the lowest level of force deemed reasonable to overcome the resistance or force being used against them. With that said, when attempting to affect an arrest on a non-compliant, unarmed suspect, try to limit your contact with the suspect to a minimum, especially if the suspect is not wearing a respirator or mask and is bleeding.

If the circumstances and your jurisdiction protocols allow for the use of less-than-lethal force applications, choose the one that will get the suspect under control the fastest and with the least amount of hands-on interaction. Many agencies have developed policies, specialty equipment, and training methods to safely handle and subdue an emotionally disturbed or aggressive person. Usually, specialty units get this type of training and equipment; however, it may be time to expand that training and equipment to patrol units as well.

Compliant subjects

For suspects that are compliant, have them face away from you before you move in to handcuff them. Once the suspect (compliant or non-compliant) is handcuffed and under control, immediately place a mask to cover the suspect’s nose and mouth, if they are not already wearing one. When moving the suspect around, lead them from behind.

Transport, booking & holding

Due to the heightened risk of COVID-19, it’s time to move away from transporting suspects in the officer’s assigned cruiser and, instead, use dedicated prisoner transport vehicles that are specially designed for easy decontamination.

The prisoner transport vehicle operators need to be specially trained to handle possible COVID-19-infected prisoners. The transport operators should be issued infrared thermometers to take and document the temperatures of all prisoners being transported. If a prisoner has a fever, they cannot be transported with prisoners who do not. A special COVID-19 prisoner transport vehicle should respond and transport.

At the booking and holding facility, there should be three separate holding cells before being processed.

One cell will contain prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19, one cell for prisoners with fevers and one cell for prisoners who show no signs of fever.

All prisoners should wear masks and everyone who enters with no fever should be checked for fever at regular intervals while at the booking and holding facility.

All prisoners with fevers should be immediately tested with Abbott’s ID NOW™ COVID-19 unit by the trained booking officers, which can give results back as fast as five minutes. If a prisoner tests positive for COVID-19, they should be placed in a Tyvek suit. The prisoner should be isolated in positive COVID-19 holding cell until they can be transported via the COVID-19 prisoner transport vehicle to the appropriate correctional facility hospital.


These recommendations will take additional monetary and human resources as well as sufficient training. But even when the peak of COVID-19 subsides, these practices will likely still need to be in place to mitigate a second wave. The world has changed due to the pandemic, which means policing has to change too.

Remember, proper planning and preparedness go a long way toward performance success. And as always stay safe and God bless.

a man in a suit and tie posing for a picture
Author Profile
Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace is an experienced, certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst and retired First Grade Detective...Show More
Ed Wallace is an experienced, certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst and retired First Grade Detective from the New York City Police Department. Ed has more than 20 years of experience in Crime Scene Investigation, Shooting Reconstruction, Bloodstain Pattern Analysis and more.Show Less

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