What Patrol Officers Need to Know and Do in Response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

America’s first responders stand at the front lines of all emergencies

– Janet Napolitano, Former Secretary

   Department of Homeland Security

Sheldon Greenberg, PhD, March 29, 2020

This document is provided as a resource for law enforcement personnel, specifically patrol officers, regarding the novel coronavirus, designated as COVID-19.  The nature of their work requires that patrol officers be vigilant and take reasonable precautions to protect themselves, their colleagues, and those they serve.  Patrol officers are and will be primary players in preventing and responding to COVID-19.  While this document focuses on the role of patrol officers, criminal investigators, plain clothes officers, and civilian employees will benefit from its content.  This document contains the following:

  1. Overview of COVID-19 
  2. Issue and Facts: Frontline Patrol Officers and COVID-19  – explaining the tasks and characteristics differentiating patrol officers from other service workers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. What Patrol Officers Should and Could Do – providing detailed suggestions and considerations for patrol officers in managing their daily operations, handling calls for service, protecting themselves and others, and more.
  4. References and Sources for Additional Information

The information provided in the following sections reflects input from police officers, supervisors and executives; public health and emergency health officials; and fire/EMS officials.

The recommendations for patrol officers are grouped into five categories:

  1. Personal protection
  2. Accurate information and information sharing
  3. Calls for service and while on patrol
  4. Equipment and vehicle
  5. Quarantine and special circumstances

Officers should apply what they deem appropriate based on their well-being, people’s need, department guidelines, workload and type of activity, experience, and instinct.



Clinical information, recommended preventive measures, and potential intervention strategies are changing rapidly in response to COVID-19.  Information provided in this document will be updated as research progresses and new data and CDC guides emerge. 

COVID-19 has been designated as a pandemic, defined as outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. According to the CDC, coronavirus is a group of viruses common throughout the world in people and different species of animals.  COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).  WHO announced that the global spread of COVID-19 is a public health emergency of international concern.  This designation is rare and was applied in only five previous infectious disease outbreaks.  In the United States, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared COVID-19 a national public health emergency.  Unless provided by reliable sources such as WHO and the CDC, some of the statistics, recommendations, and information being disseminated on COVID-19 may be incomplete or inaccurate and should be received judiciously. 

According to the CDC, coronavirus is a group of viruses common throughout the world in people and different species of animals.  In regard to current risk, the CDC reports (as of March 5, 2020):

  • COVID-19 is contagious.
  • For most of the American public, exposure to the virus and the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.  Most people (estimated at 80%) who contract the virus recover well.
  • People in communities where ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at elevated, though still relatively low risk of exposure in most communities.

Spread of the virus is most likely to occur when there is close proximity to someone who is infected.  The risk increases when this contact is prolonged.  The virus is spread primarily through respiratory secretions such as droplets and aerosols when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The secretions can be directly transferred into the mouth, nose, and eyes of another person.  The virus can be transmitted through surfaces or objects that are handled by someone who then touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes.  Symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of other illnesses – fever, sneezing, coughing, and breathing difficulties.  People who are older, have weakened immune systems, and/or underlying medical conditions are more likely to develop severe complications including pneumonia, organ failure, or even death.  Young people are not immune and, in some communities, account for more than 50% of the people who contracted the virus.

The novel coronavirus is “out of the norm.”  Prevention and response tactics continue to evolve.  Vaccine is in development and likely to take as long as 12 to 18 months before being ready for widespread dissemination.  Law enforcement agencies and their patrol officers and civilian personnel should assume that global and national efforts to deal with COVID-19 will continue in earnest for some time.

Issue and Facts: Frontline Patrol Officers and COVID-19

Issue and Facts: Frontline Patrol Officers and COVID-19

There are characteristics of uniformed patrol officers that separate them from other frontline practitioners in time of crisis.  Providing information on these characteristics is fundamental to advancing understanding, support for, and cooperation with patrol officers as they become increasingly involved in preventing and responding to COVID-19.  

The following information cites the responsibilities and scope of work, expectations for, demands imposed on, and risks assumed by uniformed police patrol officers in response the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • Patrol officers respond to any situation to which they are called or when they observe a need. Beat or area patrol officers are first responders.  They are the most visible representatives of government routinely and in time of crisis.  This will not change, regardless of the type or scope of the event, circumstance, problem, or threat.
  • Patrol officers, particularly those serving small towns, rural areas, and tribal communities, are often the first responders to 911 calls for an ambulance.
  • Patrol officers go places, work hours, come into contact with people, and observe occurrences that vary from workers in most other agencies.
  • Patrol officers routinely move toward the element of danger alone and, most often, without concern for self.
  • People rely on their area patrol officers to minimize their fears and provide reassurance through response to immediate needs, effective problem-solving, and high-visibility presence.
  • People call for a patrol officer when they believe no other agency or service worker is available or will respond to their need.
  • In many cases, the primary reason for a call to the police will have nothing to do with the presence of an illness or disease. The responding patrol officer(s) may learn of the presence of a virus or other illness while or after addressing the primary issue. 
  • Generally, police officers are not trained to recognize or respond to communicable disease.
  • People depend on and trust their local or state law enforcement agency and particularly their area patrol officer(s) for accurate information in time of crisis. People will ask officers for information about COVID-19 and expect them to have answers.
  • An officer who is exposed to COVID-19 (or any infectious disease) will come into contact with possibly dozens of people by the end of his or her shift. As such, a patrol officer may be both first responder and first transmitter.
  • Patrol officers routinely interact with vulnerable populations including homeless people, elderly people, people who have disabilities, people in emotional distress, people who have no or limited access to health care, and others.
  • The vast majority of the nation’s patrol officers work alone. For many, their primary backup is a distance away. 
  • In many jurisdictions, particularly small and rural communities, support for patrol officers from other service providers (health, public health) may not be available during certain times and days of the week.
  • Patrol officers engage in situations in which large numbers of people concentrate (special events, rallies, disturbances, crowds, etc.). During the pandemic, this may include testing COVID-19 testing sites, medical clinics, pharmacies, food stores, and other locations.  It also may include dispersing groups of people who choose to congregate.
  • Patrol officers are “first protectors” of public health and emergency health workers. Officers may be called to protect public health and emergency health workers who are confronted with threat, hostility, and disorderly conduct by people who fear infection or are infected with COVID-19 and demand testing and other services.
  • Patrol officers will be called to enforce court-ordered quarantine and aid in managing agency-imposed quarantine.
  • Patrol officers will be called to enforce and manage suggested and mandated business closures, school and campus closures, special events, and more. They will be called to provide security, monitoring, and intervention related to these and other shut downs.


What Patrol Officers Should and Could Do

What Patrol Officers Should and Could Do

The following guidelines and suggestions for patrol officers are grouped into five categories: personal protection; accurate information and information sharing; calls for service and while on patrol; equipment and vehicle; and quarantine and special circumstances.  Officers should maintain perspective and apply what they deem appropriate based on people’s need, department guidelines, workload and type of activity, experience, and intuition. 


A. Personal Protection

  1. Make prevention a personal priority to reduce exposure and risk. Recognize that exposure can come from someone in the community who is asymptomatic.  Exposure may also come from friends and neighbors.
  2. Get a flu shot (encouraged or required by most departments). Encourage family members to get flu shots.
  3. Check with a department or personal physician to ensure that other immunizations such as tetanus are up to date.
  4. Avoid increased vulnerability due to a personal pre-existing condition. Inform department medical personnel and other officials if a personal pre-existing condition exits that may increase risk or endanger health.
  5. Wash hands frequently. Reinforce to other officers that hand hygiene is a standard precaution and among the most effective ways to prevent transmission.  Remember that handling someone’s license and registration, conducting a search of a vehicle during a traffic stop, handling evidence, making an arrest, and other tasks are physical contacts that warrant immediate hand cleaning.  
  6. Avoid touching face, nose, eyes, and mouth after handing a call for service, traffic stop, or other activity, until hands are washed.
  7. Carry a personal sanitizing kit on every shift. Carry disposable gloves.  Carry hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, soap, bottled water, paper towels, and large plastic bags.  Put used items in a plastic bag and tie/seal it.  Label the bag.  Follow agency or health department protocols for disposal.
  8. Avoid touching or leaning against furniture, vehicles, or other objects. Avoid using handrails. 
  9. Avoid shaking hands.
  10. Take sick leave if feeling ill, particularly if symptoms include fever and respiratory problems. Illness of almost any type can cause immune deficiency.  Do not take chances.  
  11. Know who to contact in the department or other agency if concern or suspicion about personal exposure to COVID-19 arises.
  12. If personal exposure to COVID-19 becomes a concern, begin self-quarantine. Avoid contact with others until guided by a department official or health professional on how to proceed. 
  13. If personal exposure to COVID-19 becomes a concern, prepare a list of recent contacts including people in the community and peers. Include the location of the contacts.    
  14. Protect family members from possible exposure that occurred during the shift. Maintain distance until washing and disinfecting occurs. Discuss risk of and response to personal exposure with family members, friends, and others who may be concerned. Offer perspective, supported by evidence and agency information.  Provide them with a department contact if needed to gain additional information and support.     

B. Accurate Information and Information Sharing

  1. Follow department or local and state health department policy, directives, and guidelines. Notify supervisors or other department officials if there is a conflict in the information being provided and seek clarity.
  2. Routinely check updates and other information published by the CDC. The CDC has been providing information specific to the needs of patrol officers and fire/EMS.
  3. Speak to the facts and guide others to do the same. Avoid participating in and fostering rumor, misperception, and myth.
  4. Report the suspicious and unusual. Recognize that in a health crisis, the smallest or most innocuous piece of information may prove incredibly valuable. Assume that public health officials will value any information provided as a potential piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle.
  5. During calls for service and other activities, officers may observe people who exhibit symptoms. Know who to contact if suspicion arises about a person in the community who may have COVID-19.   Until the department provides contact information, report the circumstances to dispatch or the local health department.  Do not hesitate.  The information may be invaluable to public health officials in tracing sources and containing exposure.
  6. Expect questions. Know the referral agencies and be prepared to provide people with accurate and timely information on how and where to get answers to their questions about COVID-19.  If available through the department or public health authorities, carry brochures, fact sheets, and web and social media contact information to provide to people.
  7. Bring attention to COVID-19 contacts when preparing incident reports. Go beyond including information in report narratives.  Contact a supervisor or dispatch to expand incident classifications and use other means to ensure that rapid attention is drawn to the COVID-19 information.   
  8. Offer suggestions through channels. COVID-19 is a new virus and approaches to prevention and response are evolving.  Ideas to better serve people in need, protect personnel, and foster effective agency policies and practices are needed from officers on the frontline.  

C. Calls for Service and Operations While on Patrol

  1. Informally discuss varied scenarios with squad/shift members to develop a common approach to responding as primary and back up to calls for service and others situations in which there is risk of exposure to COVID-19.
  2. Know the call-taker/dispatcher protocols related to calls for service that may involve people who are ill.       
  3. Drive with windows open (at least partially) to ventilate the patrol vehicle.
  4. At crime and crash scenes, wear protective gloves. If dealing with more than one injured person, change gloves (if possible) between contacts.
  5. If a dispatched call for service specifically cites involvement of a person with acute infectious respiratory symptoms, notify fire/EMS and approach with protective gear (approved mask and gloves).
  6. When arriving at a call for service and if the circumstance allows, make an initial inquiry about whether anyone in the home or business is ill.
  7. If exposure to COVID-19 is suspected and the circumstance allows, casually ask the person who initiated the call for service to meet outside of the home or building.   
  8. Ask follow-up questions. When handling calls for service, officers may come in contact with people who appear ill or know others who are ill. They often are willing to provide details about their contacts, travels, and experiences.  Asking follow up questions is particularly important if fire/EMS personnel or representatives from other agencies are not involved in the response.  Inquire, but do not assume the person has COVID-19.  Pursue the following:
  9. How long has the person been ill?
  10. Has he or she or someone he or she knows recently traveled out of the country?
  11. Was he or she exposed to someone else with a similar illness? If so, where and when?
  12. What does he or she know or perceive about the illness (what it is, symptoms)?
  13. Does the person have fever and respiratory problems?
  14. How long have the symptoms been present?
  15. Is he or she under a doctor’s care? Who is the physician?
  16. Has he or she remained stable, improved, or gotten worse?
  17. Know the procedures for reporting a situation in which the involved person (people) recently travelled from a quarantined area or high-incident nation and feels ill.
  18. Minimize exposure (time and distance) to people who exhibit flu-like symptoms. Limit time spent.  If the situation allows, stand six or more feet away from the person or people involved in a call for service.  Keep similar distance from street contacts.
  19. Encourage some immediate form of quarantine when a person in the community suspects that he or she has or has been exposed to COVID-19. Suggest that the person stay away from others (at least six feet) and remain in a separate room until he or she makes contact with or is contacted by health authorities.    
  20. Protect back up officers. If threat of exposure to COVID-19 (or other infectious disease with similar symptoms such as influenza) is present, notify back up officers and supervisors.  Provide detailed information to back up officers on approach and positioning (including directive to delay or end response).
  21. If required to go to an emergency room for follow up to a call for service or vehicle crash and there is any suspicion of exposure, call ahead to determine risk and needed safety measures.

D. Equipment and Vehicle

  1. Take inventory of supplies and equipment (such as hazmat kits, first-aid supplies, and personal protection equipment) that were issued personally or are in the patrol vehicle. Determine wear and tear, expiration dates, and anything else that might inhibit effectiveness.  Inquire about replacing outdated or worn equipment and materials.   
  2. Know the purpose and proper use of protective gear (mask/respirator, goggles, face shields, coveralls, gloves, etc.) Make no assumptions about protection/prevention/safety beyond the stated intent of the equipment. If uncertain about the capabilities of protective gear, make inquiry.  If not provided, get accurate information about (and approval to use) personal protective gear before making purchase.  Unless specified as reusable and disinfected after use, dispose of protective gear (following agency or health department guidelines).
  3. If exposure to CCOVID-19 is likely and no other protective wear is available or fits the situation, wear a rain jacket for added protection.
  4. Disinfect the patrol vehicle when starting a shift and after transporting prisoners and others. If using a shared vehicle, do not rely on the officer from a previous shift to do it.  If not issued by the department, purchase, carry and use readily available disinfectant wipes (sprays are not recommended).  Wear gloves and other protection when cleaning the vehicle.  
  5. Disinfect duty belt (gun belt/equipment belt), tactical vest, and other personal gear at the end of each shift or during the shift if concerned about exposure. Disinfect handcuffs after an arrest.  If concerned about exposure, seek guidance from the agency and/or health department about protocols and other steps related to disinfecting equipment.
  6. If exposed to COVID-19 or concerned about the possibility of exposure, dead line the patrol vehicle. Know the department’s protocol for dead lining and, if needed, labeling a vehicle that may be contaminated.  Make notification about the location of the dead lined vehicle.

E. Quarantine and Special Circumstances

  1. If not provided, inquire about protocols for responding to emergency rooms, medical clinics, hospitals, and medical offices when someone suspected of having COVID-19 and is becoming or has the potential to become aggressive. Determine if there are any changes to standard response tactics to such situations. 
  2. Know how the department and squad/shift leaders want patrol officers to provide support and protection to public health and emergency health workers.
  3. If not provided, inquire about policies and protocols for coordinating and enforcing court-ordered quarantine in the community. Inquire about quarantine processes and enforcement authority and action related to individuals, homes, schools, businesses, etc.
  4. When questioning prisoners after an arrest, ask questions about health, symptoms, and exposure to COVID-19.
  5. Know the policies and protocols related to quarantine of and medical contingencies for prisoners. If COVID-19 is suspected, notify a supervisor and/or dispatch before taking the prisoner to the station or lockup facility.
  6. Know how the department and squad/shift leaders want patrol officers to respond to and manage special events (sports, concerts, charitable events) and other situations that may involve large crowds.
  7. Monitor and be an advocate for other officers. Observe the activities of other officers and advise them immediately when they’ve done something that increases their risk of exposure.  
  8. If personally quarantined by the department and/or medical/public health authority, follow guidelines and keep perspective. Quarantine is a preventive measure.  If details are not provided ask about procedures to be followed, particularly as they relate to contact with and possible quarantine of family members, length of time, access to daily essentials, etc.      

Protecting the public’s health routinely and in time of crisis is an interagency, multi-sector, cross-profession responsibility.  COVID-19 presents an opportunity to bring police and public health together in new ways to protect people and communities in need.  The nation’s uniformed patrol officers are an exceptional resource to serve as the extended eyes, ears, messengers, and problem-solvers on behalf of the public health community.  More than ever, today’s police patrol officers are first-on-the-scene “public health interventionists.”


References and Sources for Additional Information

References and Sources for Additional Information

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). How COVID-19 Spreads. Taken from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/transmission.html.

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