However you may feel about your local police or sheriff’s department, they serve a function that society is unable to do without. The risk of punishment keeps 90% of us law-abiding citizens, and we pay our law enforcement officers to stand between us and the remaining 10%. Failing that, we pay them to track down the offenders and facilitate the legal process.
First, I would like to address the “Katrina Syndrome” as it has now come to represent the general “vision” of a police response to a grand-scale disaster.
We all sat in fascinated horror, those of us who didn’t live through it of course, as the tragedy unfolded on our televisions in all its ignominious details. We heard of police officers failing to report for duty, abandoning their jobs, and even looting. As a nation we were stunned and many even allowed those few despicable examples to affirm all the negative thoughts and feeling that were ever entertained about cops.
Yes, there are bad cops out there; we would never attempt to convince anyone otherwise. However, there are bad and downright awful in every profession, from priests, doctors, lawyers, architects and truck drivers. What many fail to account for is that the police force in New Orleans is one of the most corrupt, under-paid, and demoralized police departments in America. To compare it, and its officers, with almost any other department is like comparing a General Practitioner with a Neurosurgeon; different levels of training, different temperaments.
There are, however, legitimate parallels to the New Orleans police response and what we will likely see in our own department during a severe pandemic.
LAW ENFORCEMENT DURING A SEVERE PANDEMIC
Generally the actual functions of a law enforcement entity, although they vary depending on the level, can be listed as follows:
- Technical Analysis
- Crime Prevention
- Community Outreach
All but the smallest departments operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, although not all functions are 24/7. The list of functions could be narrowed to a bare minimum during a severe pandemic. They consist of the following:
In most modern departments, as in any well run modern-model private sector business, staffing is determined on a “current needs assessment.” In other words, manpower is determined by the day-to-day enforcement, investigation, and deterrence needs of the civil entity. It is not based on the needs of that entity during an emergency, whether it’s a hurricane or a pandemic.
When an extraordinary incident occurs and extra police need to be deployed onto the streets several things happen at one time. All medically fit sworn officers are pressed into service and the department is placed on a twelve-on/twelve-off around the clock schedule, seven days a week, week in, week out, until the emergency passes. In almost all cases this schedule does not need to be maintained for more than a couple of days, occasionally several weeks, and even more rarely, a month. Katrina was the first law enforcement mobilization that lasted into the several-month time frame.
The next thing that happens is that the National Guard is activated and deployed, followed immediately by an influx of law enforcement manpower and materials from surrounding locations, or in the case of Katrina, from around the country.
These three actions allow a community, city, county or state, to mount a police response to the emergency, even if it is less than optimal.
During a severe pandemic there will be no reinforcement from the “outside.” Each city, community, county and state will be on their own, making do with what they have, and what they have may be frightfully little.
Police officers will suffer the same 30-60% absenteeism due to illness, theirs or a loved one, refusal to risk infection, and death forecast for the private sector. To those categories must be added those that will initially report but drop out due to the exhausting, emotionally overwhelming conditions that they will have to work in day in, day out, without a break.
There is also a dynamic to the demographic of patrol officers. Most are in exactly the same age range that will be at highest risk of death from an infection of H5N1, those under forty. As is often said, “Police work is a young man’s (or the PC term, person’s) profession.” Most who start in law enforcement leave before they reach middle age, finding that the horrid hours, relative low pay, the risk of civil and criminal liability, maiming and death, coupled, finally, with the “shoveling sh** (offal) against the tide” syndrome, out weighs any sense of civic duty, and the “I’m gonna make a difference” pipedream.
And let’s face it, as those remaining see their fellows starting to drop, the motivation to report to work will lessen with each passing day.
At a time when we will need our law enforcement officials to maintain order and assist in emergency relief they will be over-worked, over-whelmed and dangerously understaffed.
With the assumption that law enforcement agencies will suffer greater staff shortages as the ‘civilian’ work force and the need to operate a police presence 24/7, we have to next look at what may be faced by the police that remain in the field and by the public left unprotected by a significantly less than full compliment of law enforcement officers.
Crime is still going to happen, and certain types of crime may well sky-rocket. A listing of crimes likely to experience a dramatic increase would look something this:
- Looting – As was seen in Katrina’s aftermath, it doesn’t matter whether the items are useful or even necessary to survival, looting will occur if an opportunity presents itself.
- Rioting – It is presumed there will be medical care and food riots. People in the Western World are not used to having their needs unmet. Nor is the population likely to sit silently by while they are hungry or want medical preventives (vaccines, medicines).
- Breaking and Entering – People who have failed to prepare will be desperate to feed themselves and their families. Many will view “taking” from someone else their only option.
- Armed Robbery – Same as above.
- Home Invasion – Adding to the above will also be society’s predatory criminals who will be emboldened to take advantage of people in homes who are not usually prepared to defend themselves. We will expound further on this in another section.
- Aggravated Assault – Tempers and nerves will be strained to the breaking point. Add fear and need and we will see people resorting to physical violence more and more and with less provocation.
- Kidnapping/Hostage Taking – Again, desperate times will see desperate measures being resorted to. Someone with a sick loved one could resort to taking a medically trained individual by force in the hopes of gaining that medical care. Or, take a group of people hostage with threat of mayhem or death to demand treatment.
- Murder – Fear, anger, need will drive many murders, as well as a sense of no longer being constrained by a society that may at one point break down.
We also need to consider two distinct groups of people in our potential crime rise. Those are drug addicts who will be without (presumed) a ready supply of their chosen poison and the mentally ill who will be without their required medications (presumed).
The above categories of crimes likely to rise in a severe pandemic are all crimes that receive an immediate, multiple officer response; some require special skill-sets and/or equipment not possessed by every sworn officer. The supposition we challenge is that there will be multiple officers and the requisite skill sets to respond with the immediacy and thoroughness required.
We posit a thirty percent staffing level, for 24/7 coverage. At that staffing level the 12-on/12-off shift structure will almost certainly have to be utilized, and when will the opportunity to take a day off arise? How long can a law enforcement officer function under these possible conditions? Perhaps they could function for quite some time, but they will not be functioning at the high level of mental alertness that their job and function requires.
Priorities will have to be made, police triage, if you will.
What will happen when there is a food riot? A storming of a clinic? A gang of hungry marauders busting down your door to see if you have any food left?
There really will only be two potentialities if we are correct. One is that police will respond with a ‘no questions asked/no prisoners taken’ approach. Or, worse, will not respond at all. How high on the priority list will crimes against property be? And make no mistake, a food riot, a storming of a clinic, or busting down of your door to steal your food, are all property crimes.
Which would be worse? Which will be viewed as the most egregious post-pandemic? If you ask us, it’s a no-win situation, and that is why we factor in a drop-out factor at the rate that we do. If you have no chance of winning, why fight the battle? Of course, there will be officers who stick to the job till the bitter end, either theirs or the pandemic’s, but how effective will these few brave and stubborn souls be by the time we reach the “exit point?”
Now that I have laid out the very real problems, as I see them, I would like to offer a few workable solutions, a rarity in considering issues in a severe pandemic. For once, there are options that will cost little or no money and easily instituted without massive changes or new infrastructure.
As stated above, many law enforcement officers leave police work early, most of them voluntarily, in good standing. There are also many retired officers, again in good standing that are over forty-five and still under sixty, many of these would still be in good physical health.
These ex-officers are a specialized labor pool that could be tapped, outfitted, and given a rapid re-training in the space of two-six weeks. As soon as the pandemic strain presents itself as having sustained transmission ability these ex-officers could be activated, trained and see deployment at just the time when attrition began to appear.
Departments can inform and educate their personnel about the likely issues to arise during a severe pandemic and how they, the officers themselves, can mitigate those effects. Get informed, prepare, plan.
Departments need to make plans to house and feed officers who will either not want to go home to their families and possibly infect them, or have no family to go home to.
Recommend all personnel receive a pneumonia vaccine, which should be covered by existing health care plans. I would also recommend that patrol officers receive the same vaccines recommended to travelers to third world countries.
If civil unrest and questionable civilian safety is a real possibility then arrangements could be made to house officer’s families in a secured location, protected and provided for. Many officers will not want to leave their own families vulnerable only to come out and protect yours. Assuaging the fear of a loved one’s vulnerabilities could entice many ex-officers to step up to the call to service.
A Mobile Police Force
Fuel for vehicles will be a “must-have”, but not necessarily a “gonna-have” if the supply chain concerns come to fruition. Maintenance of the fleet must be added to fuel concerns. Patrol vehicles are high maintenance, high failure rate vehicles. They are abused as a matter of course and suffer high breakdown rates as a consequence. Will spare parts be available to fix them? Again, the JIT supply chain rears its ugly head.
There is, however, a benefit to a reduction in force; there will be more vehicles to supply fewer officers. While that could potentially cover the inability to maintain and repair vehicles due to ware and tear, it will not last long as a fall back if vehicles are damaged wholesale in civil unrest or deliberate sabotage because of an identified weakness.
Law enforcement departments are no different than any other business or entity in our modern times, needed parts are not stocked, or only stocked in very limited quantities, instead they are ordered in on a regular basis for basics and “as needed” for the less common items.
Where will spare parts come from? Who will perform the repairs? Has anyone even asked these questions?
My critique is by no means meant as any form of criticism. It is however, a summation of what I think will be in play during a severe pandemic. If only 40-60% of healthcare professionals surveyed are willing to report during a pandemic, why would police be any different? But no one has thought to poll them, unlike doctors and nurses, as to their likely response, so we can only surmise based on an extrapolation of the groups that have been surveyed.
In the best, most nationally acclaimed departments, most of police work is reactive, with a healthy sprinkle of proactive actions. In other words, much of police work is after the crime has been committed, reports, investigations, follow-ups, interviews, more reports, arrests, more reports, and sometimes, with luck, trials. While there is no real good way to measure proactive police work, crime not committed, it is still there, even if unquantifiable.
During a severe pandemic, there will be no proactive police work, and I challenge the assumption that there will be much reactive police work either. Furthermore, sadly, there is no official leadership as of this date to ensure that I am wrong in my assessments.
Our police will be hanging on by their fingertips…just like everyone else.