Written evidence submitted by Professor Karl Roberts, Consultant, World Health Organisation


Policing pandemics: the role of police as public health actors during pandemics



This submission considers the role of the police as public health actors in enforcing public health rules and guidance and the importance this has in pandemic planning and resilience. It identifies police as important actors in public health providing the evidence to support this assertion. It then goes on to consider how police have traditionally been excluded from pandemic planning and how this has presented substantial challenges for them in how they have attempted to police the public health rules. The report also considers other challenges faced by police during the pandemic, in the immediate aftermath and during the future ‘new normal.’


This report is based upon a major research project conducted in 2019 by the author for the World Health organisation prior to the Covid19 outbreak that looked at police preparedness for pandemics and the challenges in police and public health cooperation. It is also based upon the authors thirty-year experience in working at the interface of policing and public health in violence prevention, police processes and police engagement with public health


Police as Public Health Actors

Traditionally police have been most closely associated with issues such as maintaining public order and criminal investigations, in essence enforcing the law.  However over recent years, police have in some jurisdictions evolved to having a broader focus upon issues like public safety and crime prevention. With this evolution, there has come a relatively recent realisation that police share a common mission with PH[1]. While PH and police sectors have different roles and mandates in their services to the public, they intersect at various key points in protecting and promoting the health, safety and security of populations and individuals.

One of the earliest strategic level recognitions of the potential offered by police and PH collaboration came in the field of substance use with a report from the Director of the US Government’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, ‘Breaking down silos: united PH and police to pioneer a 21st century approach to drug policy.’[2] PH and police engagement has led to many jurisdictions reconceptualising illicit substance use as a PH rather than a police issue.

Other areas of police and PH cooperation have since evolved and include: 



Today, for many of these areas, not only are the mitigation and response activities shared by both police and PH, but causative drivers also affect workflow in both sectors. For example, complex links exist between socioeconomic factors, substance use, mental and physical health, and interactions with police. Police policies and procedures related to areas such as substance use and sex work can have direct and/or indirect effects on infectious disease transmission and PH harm reduction initiatives.[3]


Police and PH also interfaces with health security in a variety of ways. In natural disease outbreaks, law and order may be compromised and medical staff and equipment may require police protection.  The threat of deliberate events, while monitored and mitigated primarily through police agencies, also have direct implications for PH and emergency response.

All PH and police intersection points are important to PH and safety. However, cooperation between PH and police can be hampered by a lack of knowledge and understanding or misunderstanding of each other’s working practices, assumptions, aims and goals.


Building upon the above, Covid19 has illustrated that the police are an important public health actor during a pandemic. Internationally, public health interventions such as lockdown and quarantine have required police enforcement, and the success or otherwise of these interventions has been in part determined by the success of police in policing compliance. In the United Kingdom, during the early days of the lockdown for example, there was some variations in practice with the police in some areas being accused of overzealous approaches. This generated some public resentment and impacted compliance among some groups. More recently we have seen a balance having to be struck by police of supporting the rights of some individuals to protest against racial violence and the public health risks that this presents.


Ill-defined police role in pandemics

One major challenge for police has however been that their role during the pandemic has been relatively ill defined. In our research at the World Health Organisation we reviewed national pandemic plans for responses to pandemic influenza. Internationally few of these plans defined what the role of police would be and those that did mention police roles suggested that police would continue with their usual duties and others as may be required. More broadly, it has been rare for police to be included in pandemic planning as this has often been dominated by public health and medical officials. Whilst this is understandable, failing to include police in pandemic planning means that their voices have not been heard very clearly. This has in turn meant that when legislation was created in response to Covid19 it did not adequately consider the policing context and meant, as mentioned above, the guidance for police was vague.


One recommendation from this is therefore that police should be included as part of pandemic planning in order to obtain their views about the broad policing challenges that pandemics can create. Ultimately police have traditionally been considered in the pandemic planning sphere to simply be tools of public health rather than, as in other spheres such as substance use and sex work, facilitators of public health.


Other challenges for police

Beyond a general lack of consideration of the role of police in pandemics pandemic planning has also failed to consider challenges that police face and how this impacts their capacity and capability of policing during a pandemic. These include,


  1. Officer Health and Safety.

Many police services have reported low levels of PPE and there are significant challenges for police in utilising PPE when carrying out their duties. This in turn impacts upon the threat front line officers face when engaging with members of the public who have uncertain health status. Future planning must work to identify effective forms of PPE for police and ensure adequate supplies of PPE for officers.

  1. Police infrastructure.

Challenges have been identified in transportation and processing of individuals and responses where individuals were COVID19 positive. To protect police staff this has meant a need for infrastructure such as vehicles and police premises need to be adequately cleaned taking these out of service for a time. Resilience processes need to be created to deal with these challenges. These might include defined vehicles and premises to process covid19 positive individuals, the ability to substitute vehicles or premises if exposed to infection etc.

  1. Officer wellbeing.

Adequate systems have and will need to be generated to enable police to deal with issues such as officer attrition due to self-isolation or illness. More broadly the risk of infection is likely to take a significant psychological toll upon officers who do not wish to be ill themselves, infect other family members or colleagues. In addition, officers have been exposed to some attempts to intentionally infect them by members of the public. Beyond this many officer have been exposed to a high number of sudden deaths that are beyond their normal expectations. The psychological toll this may take on officers should not be underestimated, and we may see increased mental health issues in policing in coming months. Future planning needs to consider this and the provision of adequate support services to officers.

  1. Changes in crime patterns.

Whilst crime patterns have changes and overall numbers have reduced, there has been an increase in certain types of offending such as domestic violence, internet enabled crime, fraud and medical fraud. Future plans need to take account of how crime might change, and flexible policing systems created where adequate investigative and support services are available for related demands.

  1. Police relations with the criminal justice system.

Where prisons make inmates available for early release there is a need to ensure adequate risk assessment and perhaps inform local police as to the arrival of individuals in their area from prisons. Also, the courts have made decisions to delay some cases and postpone others. The capacity of courts to conduct trails has been overwhelmed. This will have a downstream effect upon policing and may require police and the broader criminal justice system to identify new ways of working together with different forms of disposal. Certainly, delays in trials etc. may mean that the public become frustrated with the police at the systems inability to ‘punish’ offenders adequately.

  1. Undoing lockdown.

As nations move from lockdown to gradual releasing of lockdown with the possibility that lockdown might be reinstated in some local areas, this presents a challenge for policing. Here police are likely to have to enforce different rules within the same jurisdiction. Future planning must give police clear guidance on how this can be done and the legislative tools to enable them to carry this out in a fair manner that is acceptable to the public.

  1. Policing the post pandemic.

Until a pandemic disease is eradicated and where it still poses a threat to wellbeing there are likely to be changes to normal life. This may national social distancing, face covering etc. If police are required to enforce related rules these need to be clear and provide them with adequate guidance as to what is legally required. More broadly police strategies may need to change, for example where it is required to wear face covering and where police wish to use facial identification tools.


4 June 2020


[1] van Dijk A, Crofts N. Law enforcement and public health as an emerging field. Policing and society. 2017 Apr 3;27(3):261-75. Available here.

[2] Cited by van Dijk A, Crofts N. Law enforcement and public health as an emerging field. Policing and society. 2017 Apr 3;27(3):261-75. Available here.


[3] Van Dijk AJ, Herrington V, Crofts N, Breunig R, Burris S, Sullivan H, Middleton J, Sherman S, Thomson N. Law enforcement and public health: recognition and enhancement of joined-up solutions. The Lancet. 2019 Jan 19;393(10168):287-94. Available here.