The COVID-19 pandemic and the role of the police

Dr Jonas Grutzpalk – Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Applied Sciences for Police and Public Administration in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany – conducted research on how police work had been affected by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Grutzpalk teaches at the North Rhine-Westphalia Police, where the curriculum touches on many different topics ranging from ethics, sociology, intercultural skills to various branches of law (criminal, traffic, civil service) and the so-called “police subjects”, such as forensic sciences, tactics, traffic management, etc.

From this standpoint, the doctor raised several questions: How does coronavirus change these issues? How does COVID-19 affect police education? And in what way? Are the police controlling the pandemic right now learning important lessons that should be taught to future police generations? Could it be that police forces are learning something about pandemic surveillance that should be taught at police academies across Europe?

In a series of interviews with police officers, both in and out of the workplace, he asked what they thought the police, as an institution, had learned during the pandemic, and what kind of learning processes they would like to see as a result. Their responses touched on various topics, but particularly highlighted the growing problem of violent scepticism towards the measures taken to flatten the curve of new infections.

Communication. Some interviewees argued that communicating with people on the street has become more difficult because wearing masks makes it hard for them to express themselves through facial gestures. Similarly, deciphering the emotional state of the people the police deal with has also become more challenging.

Self-protection. Spitting on police officers has long been used as a weapon to express contempt. With the advent of COVID-19, this form of physical attack has taken on a new and more dangerous significance because it could also be intended to infect police officers with coronavirus intentionally. Police officers’ self-protection, which is an essential part of their training, covers issues ranging from avoiding fierce attacks to avoiding encounters that could lead to infection. However, by its very nature, this widens the distance between police and public, which is something the interviewees tried to avoid whenever possible. It remains to be seen how police officers can maintain a level of accessibility to the people they deal with while still protecting themselves from harm.

Online teaching. The main concerns expressed in this context relate to students’ emotional well-being, but also, given that some of the material is classified, the content of what is taught. Police education is attempting to address the issue of online education, and there have been many lessons learned along the way.

Working from home and administrative tasks. One of the interviewees raised the issue of whether the police should be able to work from home. One of the main issues here is, of course, data security, but there seems to be a cultural issue as well.

These few examples show how the current pandemic has highlighted some important lessons that need to be learned with regard to modern policing. And they are many more that could be mentioned. What’s interesting about these lessons is:

a) the extent to which they could be institutionalised

b) how they might affect police conduct in everyday life

c) whether they will ever be learned or simply ignored


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