As Louisiana becomes an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks to those involved in the state’s criminal legal system are especially acute. This includes not only people working and incarcerated in our state’s crowded prisons and jails, but also the first responders whose life-saving work involves interacting with hundreds of people each day.
Fortunately, there are sensible steps that state and local officials can take to both protect public safety and public health during this pandemic. As organizations representing all sides of the ideological spectrum, we are coming together to urge criminal justice system stakeholders to prevent needless arrests and limit unnecessary contact between law enforcement and the public.
Reducing the number of physical interactions between police and the public will help protect our first responders, reduce jail populations, preserve law enforcement resources for pressing public safety priorities, and most importantly, combat the spread of COVID-19.
When it comes to public interactions, it is vital to give police officers the discretion to address violations with verbal warnings and citations rather than arrests. The ACLU of Louisiana’s recent report, "Justice Can’t Wait," found that 57% of people incarcerated in local jails were being held for low-level, non-violent offenses. And public health experts have identified jails, prisons, and interactions with first responders as significant vectors for the transmission and spread of COVID-19.
At a time when crowded jails risk becoming powder kegs of this disease and every arrest puts an officer in close contact with a potential carrier of COVID-19, law enforcement should avoid taking people into custody unless it is necessary to protect the public from harm. In many instances, for serious, but non-violent drug or property crimes, law enforcement officers should set a standard of issuing summonses in lieu of arrest and booking. This would strike the appropriate balance between appropriate justifications for arrest and the overwhelming public health threat facing our communities.
For interactions where officers feel compelled to take enforcement action but where custodial arrests unnecessarily increase the public health threat of spreading the virus, the officer should give serious consideration to issuing a citation by temporarily detaining the person with appropriate personnel protective equipment (gloves and N-95 masks) and obtaining their identification information. These tactics are being used successfully in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Dallas, with no noticeable reduction in the level of public safety.
It is important to note that reducing arrests does not mean sacrificing public safety. In fact, by limiting these needless interactions and modifying how low-level offenses are enforced, police and sheriff’s departments can free up officer time for more urgent priorities. Right now, Louisianans need community policing more than ever to assist our elderly and vulnerable loved ones, respond to domestic violence reports, and help those in need of emergency medical services. We also strongly support reassigning officers from operations to emergency services when necessary. Plainclothes police officers and other members of service typically assigned to enforcement of non-essential operations, such as parking tickets, should be reassigned to uniform patrol duty in marked vehicles for high visibility to serve the community.
Finally, departments must provide officers with adequate gloves and N-95 masks as well as develop clear policies to ensure cruisers, precincts, holding cells, and work spaces are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Officers should not be left to develop ad hoc procedures to keep themselves and others safe.
Over the past several weeks, a growing bipartisan coalition — including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, REFORM Alliance, the Heritage Foundation, and American Conservative Union, and others — have called for these urgently-needed reforms.
Our communities do not have to choose between protecting public safety and combating the spread of COVID-19. By heeding the advice of public health experts and implementing proven community-oriented policing strategies, law enforcement agencies can keep our first responders and our communities safe.
Alanah Odoms Hebert is executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. James Lee is the Louisiana director of grassroots operations for Americans for Prosperity.