Back to Blog

Public Health and Policing

Vian Tormis

    There has plenty of conversation about science and public health and policing in 2020. There has also been plenty of innovation and adaptation to a new way of working and new rules around employee health, protection, and wellness. I had the opportunity to observe two different police departments and municipalities during the onset of pandemic mitigation. These agencies are The Dayton Police Department in Ohio (where I just recently retired) at the end of March, and my new job with the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina. I also did some research into guidance from the Center for Disease Control regarding pandemic mitigation in 2009, as a patrol sergeant investigating sick leave use by my officers. H1N1 rippled through my squad and decimated my staffing. I could easily see the problem as officers walked into my tiny office with obvious flu-like symptoms. What was celebrated as a positive work ethic was the real problem. Officers took three days off work and returned to work, only to share the virus with the rest of the squad because they felt better. Stay off longer on sick leave meant a trip to a doctor to get an employee medical certificate, often as an out of pocket expense. It was easier to take out the rest of the unit than to prevent the spread.

    As we discuss the value of evidence-based policing, we now have a tremendous opportunity to apply research, evidence, and science to workforce protection in policing. When we finally recover from this pandemic, we will still have the seasonal flu and the next pandemic. The next one might not be a respiratory virus, and it might not be lethal, but we will certainly now face a future of communicable illnesses with the power to disrupt our systems and staffing models. We have the opportunity to invest in permanent changes to protect our employees and their families. We have the opportunity to invest in health, safety, and wellness by applying evidence and lessons learned from this pandemic.

    At the beginning of the pandemic, some of my colleagues in police leadership wondered why we didn’t take similar measures to prevent the spread of the seasonal flu. That’s an excellent question…why don’t we do more to limit the spread of seasonal flu in our workforce? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), people are most contagious with seasonal flu during the first 3-4 days of symptoms and up to 5-7 days after the onset of symptoms. Before Covid19, the vast majority of police leaders and accountability managers in Human Resources would tell you that we cannot change the rules or telework. We’ve always limited sick leave usage because that’s the way we’ve always done it, and someone will undoubtedly game the system if we change it. Sound familiar? That’s the groan of an institution unwilling to change. Those same institutions were scrambling, and forced to institute new rules for employees at the beginning of the pandemic. By comparison, institutions, and workplaces that already allowed telework were more flexible and able to protect employees better.

    Now that we are here, we should not only consider this a temporary disruption but an opportunity to embrace science and evidence to forge a new way of life and work. Our police researchers now have tons of data to evaluate our ability to fight crime remotely. Soon, we will see evaluations of socially distanced reporting, investigating, community outreach, and police training. Following public health science, we could remodel those sick leave policies to ensure sick officers stay home until they are no longer contagious. After three days, we feel better and are usually well enough to work, but now we know how to put people back to work safely. As a police manager, I’d rather have one or two officers out sick for a few extra days than lose an entire unit of 10 or 20 officers for three days. The officers out sick can still take calls by phone or brush up on some online training. This approach keeps the officers working, while at the same time limiting the spread of all contagious illnesses.

    There are plenty of other opportunities to find evidence of this new way of life in the protection of our communities and our infrastructure. For example, there are fewer cars on the road, leading to fewer opportunities for crashes. If we have fewer collisions, then there is less demand for police traffic control. As a result, a lower impact on our roads and less pollution. A sustained change in the way we work may mean a decrease in the cost of government. It certainly offers some benefits to some employees as our daily commuting time is reduced significantly. There is a relatively robust body of research on the effects of teleworking on productivity and employee satisfaction as well as research on the vital element of coworking with teammates or indirect service environments. Like the opportunities to study this grand experiment of alternative service delivery in policing, we are all participating in monumental research. The operation is large scale teleworking, and there will be future discussions of work-life balance, mental health/wellness, and hybrid models.

    War tends to produce innovation in medicine, and we have very much likened this event to war in many ways. It will create innovation, and it will undoubtedly provide evidence of successful changes. As far as policing goes, we must fight the urge to get back to business as usual. It’s not going to happen anytime soon. We can and should spend this time thinking about how we can learn from this experience, follow the science, and create something better.