Policing a Pandemic

Here’s the good news, because there’s not much of it: violent street crime appears to be dramatically dropping amid stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that “Since the governor issued her stay-at-home order on Monday, we’ve seen about a 15 to 20 percent drop in 911 calls, and an even greater drop in crime.” Since March 18, Chicago has had only two homicides. New York City saw a 17% drop in what it defines as “major crimes” from March 16 through March 23 as compared to the previous week, and shootings dropped 25% in Los Angeles from February 23 to March 21 as compared to the previous month.

This is especially good news to police departments that have already tried to look for ways to protect frontline officers from the spread of the coronavirus. The nature of police work involves close-up encounters with the public; police departments have tried to minimize contact related to non-emergency calls, closed down public lobbies, and started to don masks and protective gear. Not all calls, however, can be routed to remote assistance, and not all departments can afford the equipment to keep their officers safe from coronavirus. Despite the drop in some crime, it is economically marginalized, high-crime cities that will most likely feel the brunt of underpolicing under coronavirus, and it is police in those departments who will feel the brunt most personally.

A dismal case in point: the Detroit Police Department. DPD officers are mindblowingly under-resourced and underpaid: starting pay to police one of the US’s most violent cities is just $40,000. When I did ride-alongs with DPD in 2014, I saw first-hand how this city’s financial woes translated into police work. I ended up buying my own bullet-proof vest to wear after I realized that by letting me borrow one of the department’s, I was forcing one of their own to go without one. How could this department possibly weather the coronavirus, given that one of the emergent hot spots is Detroit?

Already, the department has lost two–a 38-year-old 911 dispatcher and a 50-year-old captain, who was also the commanding officer of the Detroit Homicide Section. Nine officers have tested positive; a fifth are now quarantined.

Chief James Craig has admitted that the risk remains by virtue of police work: though officers are to sanitize their cars every two hours and practice social distancing, “officers still have to handcuff people and get ‘up-close and personal’ in various situations,” as USA Today summarized public remarks from Craig. Needless to say, in Detroit, police are still responding to calls: “What’s non-negotiable is misdemeanor arrests for domestic violence, criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree and certainly felonies…Any inference that we are turning a blind eye to crime is totally inaccurate.  Crime will not go up because we’re taking a different posture on low level misdemeanor crimes. It just will not.”

That response is crucial because as people move indoors, other kinds of violence are surging; 911 calls related to self-harm and suicide are spiking in areas with emergency orders, while the coronavirus is already starting to add fuel to the fire of domestic abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is already reporting abusers using the pandemic as a means to control and isolate their victims, and victims themselves are citing fears of COVID-19 to stay in abusive situations. This changing ecology of crime may ultimately make the recent drops in certain kinds of street crime look much less like a silver lining and more like the calm before the storm. And as that happens, police will risk exposure: just last Saturday, a half-dozen Detroit police officers and a sergeant exposed themselves to the coronavirus when they responded to a domestic violence call. If those officers responded to calls before they realized their own exposure, they exposed the very people who called on them for help.

Coronavirus, from this perspective, may dampen crime rights, but insofar as it encourages us to see everyone–especially those, like police, with regular contact with “the public”–as potential carriers, it also has the potential to fundamentally alter our perceptions of what criminologists call our “collective security apparatus“–informal and formal institutions like public law enforcement, community patrols, and networks of neighbors who look out for each other. Lack of faith in this apparatus means that people might be less likely to call the police, not just worrying that they might not come but also fearing what they might carry with them if they do come. It also means that people might be more likely to rely on self-help measures–like gun carrying, as I learned during my own research on gun carrying in the Metro Detroit area.

Detroit PD is not the only department facing officer deaths and broad quarantines, and officer deaths and broad quarantines are not the only ways in which the coronavirus is rattling police departments. There’s so much to say here about how the pandemic is transforming policing–and not just from the perspective from the police but also from the perspetive of the policed. Who ends up being overpoliced versus underpoliced; how profiling, particularly racial profiling, shapes the policing of a pandemic; how technology is harnessed to wed pandemic control to policing; what forms the criminalization of everyday life takes in the context of a global health crisis; how individuals make do in contexts of insecurity they neither have chosen nor can control–all of these are questions that must be unraveled as we get our bearings on rapidly changing circumstances that make March feel like a lifetime.

As we as a society grapple with policing in a pandemic, though, I think Detroit is telling us something distressing about these–as Chief James Craig called them–“dark days.” Michiganders often see Detroit as the harbinger of what is to come–and Detroit’s experience with coronavirus devastatingly spell out the vulnerability that those on the front-lines of criminal insecurity–whether victims or perpetrators, the police or the policed–are now experiencing.

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