2020 will go down as one of the most challenging and significant years in American law enforcement history. Unlike like 2001, when the attacks of 9/11 occurred, it was not a single occurrence but a multitude of events that combined to challenge law enforcement.
A worldwide epidemic started in early 2020. Within months the virus had spread around the world, including the United States. I doubt any police agencies had a pandemic contingency plan ready to go.
As the virus progressively spread across the country, municipal, state, and federal agencies took actions to try to limit its reach. Law enforcement leaders were caught between trying to get the public to comply with edicts for the collective good while still recognizing the need to protect individual freedoms. Most agencies allowed for voluntary compliance and only took action when absolutely necessary.
Hundreds of first responders were exposed to the virus while on the job. Thankfully most recovered but a handful made the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives.
On May 25, 2020, police officers in the City of Minneapolis arrested a suspect for passing counterfeit currency. In an effort to overcome the suspect’s resistance, one officer knelt on the suspect’s neck as he pleaded with him. The suspect stopped breathing and later died. The heart wrenching video was shared on social media and within hours the name “George Floyd” became synonymous with police brutality.
Protest demonstrations spread like wildfire across the country. The demonstrations occurred in even the smallest communities and later in major cities around the world. Many of the protests became violent and collectively cost millions in property damage. Police were criticized for both overreacting and under-reacting to the protests.
Overnight the approval ratings for law enforcement plummeted. The ratings were the lowest they’ve been in more than 30 years. The greatest disparity was seen amongst people of color. Body camera deployment amongst departments became the highest priority and hundreds more agencies implemented body-worn cameras in an attempt to regain public trust.
Perception, right or wrong, is real in its consequences. Decades of public trust of the police will have to be re-established in the coming years.
Police departments also had to deal with a contentious election during which demonstrations occurred in almost every city in the country. Most often, police departments were deployed to keep the peace. Supporters of both parties would often come into conflict with one another. Once again, police were criticized by both sides for both their action and inaction.
The phrase “Defund the Police” was birthed and quickly became a movement, with the collective thought being there are other means to deal with society’s problems other than calling the police. The reality is few supporters of the defunding movement had any idea what police officers do day to day.
The actions critics found most objectionable are only a small part of what police do. So, what is it the movement’s supporters want police to stop doing? Defunding simply means police officers will have to stop doing things most communities expect them to do.
In the end, law enforcement agencies will have to pivot and work hard at engaging and reconnecting with their communities — especially communities where residents feel the most disenfranchised and are distrustful.
The economic realities of life during the COVID-19 pandemic are creating a state of defunding for many agencies across the country anyway. Lack of revenue at the municipal and county level due to the closing of stores and stay-at-home orders have police staff strategizing on how to do policing with fewer people and fewer resources. The command staff at law enforcement agencies have to decide “what will we stop doing.”
And then there is the issue of rising crime, especially homicides. In cities across America collectively there has been a 36 percent rise in homicides. Some cities are seeing double digit increases while others are at or below historical trends. The trend also defies political affiliation.
Theories abound as to why homicides are increasing.
One theory is the pandemic has resulted in a social breakdown of some sort in communities. Lack of full-time employment and school being out of session has created an environment for crime to thrive.
De-policing is another area being considered as a cause. Did nationwide anti-police sentiment create an environment where police officers have become disengaged from proactive enforcement efforts? Anecdotal observations will quickly tell you morale reached an all-time low this past year.
Whatever the cause, it would appear, for many communities, that during a time when police are most needed there is little political will to support them.
I won’t predict what 2021 will bring other than it will continue to be a challenging time for the law enforcement profession. Forward progress will require communities, police agencies and politicians to. work together to make things better for all of us. Not doing so will only result in our communities becoming less safe and less livable.