Impact of COVID-19 on police: What do we need to know now and in the future?
On March 11, 2020, a global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It continues to spread, with a second wave, a real and imminent risk. World leaders continue to scramble to flatten the curve of infection, slow its progress, reduce fatalities and protect both, healthcare systems and economies from collapse. We have heard a great deal about health workers. The first group in a health emergency to be affected and experience stress are certainly intensive care physicians, doctors, and nurses. They are the ones on the initial frontline, and as in previous outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS that experience increased workload demands, increased exposure, and an elevated risk of infection. The circumstances and nature of this health pandemic demands that our attention to extended beyond health worker on the frontline and consider its impact on police.
What has become apparent is that the COVID-19 pandemic has created novel and unique circumstances that has seen significant implications for the role of police and how they serve their communities. We have seen increases in the prevalence of online child exploitation activities, increased cases of domestic violence and an explosion of online fraud. Just as police have worldwide, the police of India have been asked to enforce ever-changing and sometimes confusing lockdown laws. The increased interaction between police and critical nature of lockdown orders for public health have impacted on police-community relations, with some indicating that this had led to an exacerbation of overpolicing. The pressure on police no doubt results in instances where compassion and empathy are sometimes lost, it has the potential to result in increased conflict and use of force. We must be cautious that the negative interactions created by COVID-19 do not have longer-term impacts on relationship between police and their communities and that police maintain high levels of integrity and performance.
Given the changing nature of policing during COVID-19, no doubt police in India, right from 12 March when the lock down in Delhi was announced, and across the globe have faced enormous stress that has implications for their own physical and psychological health and safety.
While law enforcement officers experience a comparatively large numbers of critical incidents or traumatic events due to the nature of their work, the dangers of COVID-19 are new. The stress for officers is real, a fear of contracting COVID-19 themselves and the risk of transmission to family and friends – the pandemic impacts on every frontline officer, on every shift.
COVID-19 is a threat that should be viewed as a ‘critical’ incident, like that experienced when an officer is involved in a shooting or attends a fatal traffic accident. It is likely that COVID-19 will induce trauma responses. Given emerging statistics in the United States and some initial reports from India, the level of sickness and death amongst police will be high. News report from The Indian Express (3 July, 2020) reported that 64 police personnel have died so far of COVID-19. Worryingly, these figures are likely to exceed typical yearly rates of illness and death resulting from traditional trauma in policing.
Police agencies across India must invest in adequate support services to assist the mental health of police now and in the longer term
When police are faced with circumstances that pose a risk to self, this is clearly linked to poor mental health outcomes. The stress and concern of officers that they may infect family and friends is likely to exacerbate psychological distress of police personnel. Further, the family unit is put under enormous pressure in circumstances where police are quarantined due to likely exposure or actual infection.
What we have learnt from events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina is that mental health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are evident in the direct aftermath of a critical incident. Importantly, we need to recognise that they also persist in the months and years following.
A healthy and productive workforce of police personnel is a key pillar in effective, fair and efficient policing. As such, there is likely to be a large toll from COVID-19 for the foreseeable future on police personnel and their families. Police agencies across India must invest in adequate support services to assist the mental health of police now and in the longer term. Methodologies need to be developed to identify ‘at risk’ officers and in turn, access to support not only for police but also for their families must be remain a priority for police agencies and their leaders.
In sum, COVID-19 is a largescale, pervasive event that has changed the nature, content and experience of policing for both the community and police. What its long-term impact will be in terms of police-community relations and well-being remains a guessing game. However, the first step is to clearly acknowledge that COVID-19 has changed policing, at least for now. Looking forward, we must plan investment in ensuring that police and communities work together for the sake of a harmonious future. We must also ensure that the human face of police, the police officers themselves are supported. We need to recognise that police do not have the option of self-isolating to protect themselves, they by the very nature of their job put themselves in harm’s way, perhaps now more regularly and in more unpredictable circumstances than ever before.
Dr Jacqueline Drew is Senior Lecturer and Program Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Queensland