Policing During the Pandemic: Opportunities Overlooked
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have experienced feelings common to the average U.S. police officer. Unbeknownst to them, American households have been given a rare look inside the mind of modern law enforcement. Unfortunately, American policing has squandered this opportunity for a greater mutual understanding with a series of self-immolations that only serve to widen an already intolerable gap.
In 1974, renowned policing scholar, Egon Bitner, described the role of police as responders to “something-that-ought-not-be-happening-about-which-something-should-be-done-NOW!” The pandemic fits squarely within this same rubric. In 2020, our nation (and nations the world over) suddenly faced a mounting crisis with which it did not necessarily have the resources, training, skills, will, or wisdom to effectively address. The problem was exigent and expanding with little consensus as to its best solution.
In the U.S. we see the police not as mere emergency responders, but as momentary arbiters of society’s will. Bittner writing a few years earlier, describes the police as, “a mechanism for the distribution of nonnegotiably coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies.” In other words, the police have been afforded the power in society to make people do things that they might not otherwise want to do — under certain circumstances, within the law, personal sensibilities, and the culture of policing.
This mirrors the governmental response to the emerging pandemic crisis. Forced quarantines, restricted use of public spaces, testing, and mask mandates became like the flashing emergency lights of a patrol car. We know we must pull over, even if it’s just about the last thing we want to do.
Most of us would feel the fetter of the flashing lights and understand our obligation to briefly render ourselves, but many in society do not. We understand that we are bound not just because the laws say so or by the threat of punishment, but because the laws reflect some consensus about peace, order, and regulation. A 1993 report by the Community Relations Service in the U.S. Department of Justice spoke to the broadly shared values that undergirds policing, “Those values, while implicit in our Constitution, must…