Like many other police departments across the nation, the University of Michigan Police Department is facing new challenges due to COVID-19. Procedures are being changed and workers are adjusting to continue to keep the Ann Arbor community safe.
UMPD is a branch of the Division of Public Safety and Security, and is supervised by the Police Department Oversight Committee. This committee serves to consider complaints submitted from community members about police officer encounters and any internal police investigations. Alum Whit Froehlich, student member of the Police Department Oversight Committee, explained how COVID-19 has affected committee meetings.
“We usually meet in the spring and in the fall to receive reports from the chief of police about internal investigations and we had to delay our spring meeting, at which we would have normally received the biannual report, because the police department and the chief were very, very busy,” Froehlich said. “And we also had to arrange to meet not in person.”
Aside from the delay of meetings and the virtual transition, the committee also had to delay their elections, according to Froehlich.
Heather Young, director of strategic communications and public information officer for the DPSS, spoke about the difficulties the division is facing.
“We face many of the challenges that others are facing across the nation,” Young said. “For safety and security, it's something that doesn't really stop. So where we may be different is that public safety can't always be, in most cases, served from working from home. So we've had to find a way to make sure that our staff can do their duties on location in the safest way possible, and a way that keeps both our community and our staff safe.”
In addition to following all of the guidelines issued by public health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, DPSS is also working to relocate workers in order to ensure enough security in high priority areas.
“Many people that work for DPSS have found themselves maybe working in a different area,” Young said. “For example, housing officers and security officers that work in the housing halls may be deployed where we need them the most because we've increased our screening at the hospital, (which includes) health screenings (and) making sure that people aren't sick or following the appropriate facemask guidelines and things like that. So it's really, for DPSS, all hands on deck and being able to respond to wherever needed the most.”
LSA sophomore Will Clancy commented on the new types of dangers police officers are facing. He noted officers could be exposing themselves to COVID-19.
“I feel like the jobs of police officers have become a lot more dangerous as they have to work with people who may or may not have the virus and the officer has no way of knowing,” Clancy said. “So they are putting their health at risk to maintain the public’s safety.”
Law School lecturer Saul Green discussed how the police have shifted their focus reflecting on the more widespread effects that COVID-19 has had on police departments.
“We think of policing so often as we're responding to Part One crimes — homicide, rape, assault — those types of things, and what police have to learn now is how to respond to disorder,” Green said.
Green also emphasized the uncertainty many police departments are facing regarding the public response to guidelines. As small steps continue to be taken towards the reopening of the nation, the police must remain consistent with executive orders.
“Now, maybe this weekend, when beaches and parks are open, how do you control the interaction in ways that are consistent with the emergency orders that have been issued in a state?” Green asked.
When speaking about the unique environment that COVID-19 has created, Green discussed the war-like nature of the pandemic. As a result of the disorder that emerged, policing has transformed.
“It is an emergency that is maybe akin to the aftermath of 9/11, where law enforcement had to suddenly respond to terrorism and what did that mean and and how do you deal with that and how did you police in a way to respond to this kind of major crisis,” Green said. “They're having to figure out how to deal with a lower-type situation with an enemy unlike any enemy that they've ever seen.”
Daily Staff Reporter Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.