Cops Say Social Distancing Enforcement Has Changed Policing Police departments are facing a new reality in the era of coronavirus. As familiar categories of crime fade, officers are being asked to handle unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable new assignments.
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Policing Is Changing In The Age of Social Distancing

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Policing Is Changing In The Age of Social Distancing

Policing Is Changing In The Age of Social Distancing

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NOEL KING, HOST:

OK, one silver lining during this pandemic - crime is down. That doesn't mean that law enforcement has nothing to do, though. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The most visible new assignment for police these days is enforcing social distancing. On Saturday, Chicago's new police superintendent, David Brown, warned that he'd be sending out his cops to break up house parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID BROWN: As silly as that sounds, you could be arrested for having a party in this environment.

KASTE: A thousand officers were sent out on social distancing patrols in New York over the weekend, which mostly meant reminding people in public spaces to stay 6 feet apart. There have been complaints in some cities that the rules are being enforced unevenly or unfairly, even as most cops will tell you that they'd rather not even be doing this kind of work. Tom Shaffer is a captain with the Omaha Police Department.

TOM SHAFFER: I can speak for all nearly thousand sworn law enforcement officers here - nobody became a cop so they could go to a bar and grill and say, you've got 11 people here; you've got to send one home.

KASTE: But often, the new reality for cops isn't about crowd control; it's about eerily empty streets.

ADAM PLANTINGA: We've had some reports of coyotes wandering around downtown.

KASTE: Sergeant Adam Plantinga patrols in San Francisco. He also writes books about police work. He says some aspects of that work are a little different now - traffic stops, for instance.

PLANTINGA: Officers are trying to keep themselves and their families safe, too. So if someone's doing a California roll through a stop sign, we might have been more inclined to stop them and either run their license or give given a ticket pre-corona than now.

KASTE: And when they do catch a suspect, if it's a nonviolent crime, he says sometimes they'll just let that person go, especially if there's a contamination risk or the jail's crowded. He says they can always get an arrest warrant for that suspect later on.

PLANTINGA: That can be hard to do, but these are interesting times we find ourselves in.

KASTE: But people should not count on getting let off. In some circumstances, the authorities might want to make an example of them. Take the two women who allegedly robbed a drugstore in San Francisco in early April. John Bennett is the special agent in charge of the FBI office there.

JOHN BENNETT: There were individuals that walked into a Walgreens and decided that they were going to announce to everybody that they had COVID and then proceeded to cough on people as they removed items from the shelf and walked out the door.

KASTE: This drugstore caper is now a federal case. The U.S. attorney is charging the women with interfering with interstate commerce. Bennett says the feds got involved to protect essential workers.

BENNETT: Because these individuals were specifically using the threat of a virus in order to conduct criminal activity, that's where the game changes, and that's where the FBI can get involved.

KASTE: Some people are hoping that this crisis will inspire a more forgiving attitude from police. Natasha Moore is on Seattle's Community Police Commission, which has lobbied for measures such as relaxed parking enforcement. She says it's now developing training to help police and others better handle people who are feeling traumatized.

NATASHA MOORE: I could assume that people aren't in their right mind right now with everything that's going on, just try to maintain and be present, and it's a difficult time right now to do that.

KASTE: At the same time, there are also some worries that social distancing by the police has created an opening for some violent criminals. In Omaha, Captain Shaffer says felony assaults and homicides went up, and in one neighborhood, shot spotter detectors picked up almost twice as many gunshots in March.

SHAFFER: I think the criminal element - I'd be remiss if they didn't notice the lack of cruisers out on traffic stops. And that's just one piece, but I think that that, over time, is kind of like, hey, we've got a better chance to maybe go from point A to point B and not get pulled over.

KASTE: But he says the department is now adjusting, beefing up its gang enforcement and getting officers enough PPEs and hand sanitizer so they can go back to what he calls more proactive policing.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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