Coronavirus (COVID-19): international policing responses - part 1 - during lockdown

This review (part 1) considers international policing approaches and responses to policing the lockdown, up to the 7 May 2020.


Main points

  • Lockdown measures are in place across the US, but are primarily based on state-of-emergency or public-health-emergency responses at the State level, and thus both rules and policing vary by State
  • Reports suggest policing approaches in most States are prioritising education and encouragement, and avoiding enforcement unless strictly necessary
  • However, in some areas, enforcement is much more harsh, with high fines being issued, and judges making orders extending to ankle monitoring some people over breaches
  • A number of jurisdictions have also experienced high profile backlash from police, and in some instances police leadership have indicated publicly that they do not intend to enforce lockdown laws
  • There are some concerns about police safety, primarily due to a scarcity of PPE. Rates of illness absence in police forces is high, and some officers have died of COVID-19
  • Over 20 States have had some public protests against lockdown measures, based largely on constitutional objections
  • The direction and rate of change in lockdown measures is varying significantly by State. Some States have already begun to allow some or all non-essential businesses to reopen, including restaurants, and end or relax orders to stay at home. However others continue to extend measures, with California about to close all beaches in the State

The lockdown

In mid-March the White House declared a National Emergency in response to the Coronavirus, freed up over $42 billion in resources for states and localities and issued new guidelines to help protect Americans during the global Coronavirus outbreak. These were initially presented as '15 days to slow the spread', but have since been extended to '30 days etc.' The guidelines recommend to:

  • Listen to and follow the directions of the state and local authorities
  • Stay home if people are sick
  • Keep sick children at home
  • Keep the entire household at home if someone within the household tested positive for Coronavirus
  • Stay home and away from other people if you are old or a person with a serious underlying health condition

The guidelines also advised State Governors to take various measures. All states were told to halt social visits to nursing homes and retirement and long-term care facilities, and states with evidence of community transmission were told to close schools in affected and surrounding areas, as well as all bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate.[171]

The measures and regulations imposed by states as a response to the coronavirus pandemic vary. By 16 March, every state had made an emergency declaration, with most taking the form of a State of Emergency or a Public Health Emergency. These allow governors to exercise emergency powers States also imposed social distancing measures, including mandatory stay at home orders, closures of non-essential businesses, bans on large gatherings, school closures, and limits on bars and restaurants and other public places.[172]

Policing the lockdown

Policing tactics to enforce each state's regulations vary from state to state, but early reports suggested that, between the end of March and the beginning of April, police forces across the country were largely focusing on educating the public, with officers having rarely gone beyond verbal or written warnings in California,[173] and having taken an 'education over enforcement' approach in the San Francisco Bay Area.[174] Police departments in Chicago cautioned officers not to use stay-at-home orders as a pretext to stop residents.[175] At the end of April, in Alaska and Maine, police departments are still reporting that their focus is on education and that they want to avoid arrests and fines as much as possible.[176]

In some parts of the country, however, social-distancing orders are being enforced more strictly. Rhode Island's governor ordered state troopers to profile and stop cars with out-of-state license plates.[177] Police in New Jersey continue to patrol communities and break up large groups of people. In Maryland, the governor's stay-at-home order carries a fine of up to $5,000 and one year in jail,[178] with a number of people already having been charged with violating the order.[179] Philadelphia transit police officers violently forced a man off a bus for not wearing a mask. In New York, the maximum fine for breaking social-distancing protocols was raised from $500 to $1,000. In Kentucky, judges are ordering people who have tested positive for the coronavirus and have broken quarantine to be fitted with ankle monitors - with the threat of arrest if they leave their homes. In Florida, a judge ruled that people arrested for breaking quarantine can be held without bail.[180]

There have been a number of high-profile protests by law enforcement, refusing to enforce particular regulations ordered by their states:

  • A Houston police union penned an open letter taking issue with a new order requiring face coverings by anyone in public over 10 years of age, which carries a $1,000 fine for noncompliance; the police union president said that police departments do not have the resources to enforce 'draconian' face covering orders
  • In Wisconsin, a Republican County Sheriff wrote an open letter indicating his department would not be enforcing the stay-at-home order issued by the state's Democratic governor
  • In Washington state, another Republican sheriff took issue over the closing of certain businesses
  • A Republican sheriff in Michigan penned an open letter to his constituents clarifying how his department would be handling stay-at-home order violations saying: "We are not making traffic stops to see where you are traveling to, ticketing or arresting people whose kids are playing in the yard or questioning people as to unnecessary travel:[181]

Police safety

There have been a number of police officers deaths attributed to COVID-19,[182] with reports of officers lacking access to PPE[183] as recommended by the Centre for Disease Control.[184] Staffing levels at a number of law enforcement agencies have been affected due to the spread of COVID-19. As of mid-April, more than 2,000 New York City Police Department officers had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 20% police force was out sick. In Detroit, 369 officers had been placed in quarantine, after more than 400 recently returned from quarantine.[185] Many law enforcement officials have complained that it is too difficult to get officers tested for the coronavirus, and that it takes too long to get results.[186] There have also been reports of police officers having been spat on, coughed on, or otherwise assaulted by individuals claiming to have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.[187]

Social tensions

There have been a number of protests against the new measures, with demonstrations having taken place in about 20 states. Protesters see the new regulations against the spread of COVID-19 as unconstitutional.[188] In some cases, they have been backed by President Trump, such as in the case of protests in Michigan.[189]

Easing the lockdown

The federal guidelines put in place to slow the spread of the virus by encouraging people to curtail nearly all public life expire on 30 April.[190] Earlier in April, President Trump unveiled Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, a three-phased approach to easing the lockdown.[191]

After having social distancing requirements in place for several weeks, states have begun to roll back some of these measures by allowing some or all non-essential businesses to reopen, rescinding stay at home orders, and easing restrictions on in-person dining at restaurants.[192] Texas announced that retail stores, restaurants, movie theatres and malls would be allowed to reopen with limited capacity; Ohio unveiled a more incremental reopening plan that would allow manufacturing work to resume and offices to reopen.[193]

This is not the case all over the country, however: as of 30 April, California is said to be due to close all beaches in the state.[194]



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