Another Impossible Task for the Average Cop

By Jim Glennon  |   Mar 26, 2020

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an astonishing threat a few days ago and it was aimed at large segments of her city’s population.

“If we have to — because you are not educating yourselves into compliance and if you are not abiding by these very clear, but necessary stay-at-home orders — we will be forced to shut down parks and the entire lakefront,” the mayor said.

The new mayor said that she noticed swaths of people outside yesterday; a sunny 50-degree-plus Wednesday.  They were running along the beautiful lake shore, riding bikes, walking, holding hands, playing frisbee, playing basketball and generally congregating in groups in spite of the covid-19 virus.

“You cannot go on long bike rides.  Playgrounds are shut down. Outside is a brief respite, not for 5Ks.”

Obviously, and understandably frustrated, she advised that she has directed her police department to compel compliance. “We’re going to give you an admonition.  And if you don’t turn right away and head home then you’re going to get a citation.  And if worse, yeah, we will take you into custody.”

By “we” she of course means the police, individual officers.

Human Nature

While the mayor’s concerns about covid-19 are valid and even if 90% of the city’s population generally agree with “distancing” as a viable and reasonable option, they are still people.  American people.  No matter how politically divided our population of over 330 million may be, they are still freedom-loving Americans. They have never been restricted from going to a bar, store, friend’s house, park, the lake front and church.  And no matter how much common sense the current stay-at-home order has at its core; at the core of people is a desire for freedom.  Freedom of movement as well as association.

Most people I know agree we should isolate.  They have reasoned their way through the concept and necessity.  Weighing pros and cons, considering the risks and possible outcomes, they have decided to comply no matter how counterintuitive it is to have the government tell you where you can and can’t go and who you can interact with.  Most have even rationalized the loss of employment.

At least for now.

But a 5K is too long?  How about a three-mile run…and for all I know that’s the same thing – I’m an elliptical guy. Old, broken down, put it on 6, watch TV for 40 minutes.   Six feet apart during your brief “respite”?  What if husband and wife are three feet apart while taking a walk?  Can they hold hands?  How long is a respite, in other words, how long outside is too long?

In Illinois, where I live, the governor has the current “stay inside” order set to expire on April 9.  But he’ll probably extend it. In my opinion, that’s when you will see serious cracks in compliance.

While the social psychology of this situation is muddy, there are some obvious realities.

When people compare this situation to World War II–the restrictions imposed on the populace at the time and the compelled service of young men–they are comparing apples and oranges.  This is different for too many reasons to go into here, but I want to mention a couple before we talk about the impact this will have on the police.

First, we are affected by the general psyche of a population that is incredibly privileged and consequentially selfish.  We turn on faucets and get water, go to the local market and grab whatever we desire, go to restaurants and throw away more food than we eat, are in contact with everyone in our lives for every moment of time, click a button and have unnecessary trinkets dropped off at our front doors only to remain unopened for days if not weeks.  The most privileged human beings who have ever existed on this planet we are.

The second is that covid-19 isn’t the axis powers.  We can’t see our enemy and we can’t get a real consensus on how to fight it.  We can’t even agree on who, and how many, will be victimized if we decide to sit it out and let the enemy run its course.

The longer the hunker down orders stay in place the more rebellion you will see.  I all but guarantee it.  Why? Because we’re human.

An Impossible Task?

Yesterday I drove past a park in a suburb of Chicago and the park was packed!  People frolffing, roller blading, skateboarding, jogging, biking, etc. I saw couples holding hands.  Groups congregating and talking.  No one had on masks, no gloves that I saw.  People were in shorts and tee shirts; people standing closer than six feet.

I saw several families sitting together near playground equipment, watching over their children on the swings and slides.  I saw an older couple talking to some children.  There were a couple of teens kissing while leaning against a tree.

And I saw a cop sitting in her squad car watching all of it. Doing nothing about the obvious and numerous violations of the governor’s mandate.

And what would she do?

What if she approached and as nicely as possible told them that they had to stop playing basketball, holding hands, kissing and generally disperse?  And what if they refused?  Now what?  Call for backup?

I talked to a Chicago cop today and they are as confused as anybody else.  This officer said to me, “They want us to still work, but there is no way I’m making a traffic stop unless the driver points a gun at me.  I’m not getting near anyone!”

The officers have been told to “be proactive” while avoiding the need to make arrests. They are advised not to get within six feet of people, not to eat together, and above all not to make physical contact. But they’re to enforce the laws on social distancing.

Unquestionably, as the anxiety of the average citizen begins to build they will start going out even more, pushing the limits of the ‘no contact’ order imposed by the government.  And as one goes, so go others.  Remember the irrational hoarding of toilet paper?

So the mayor, again with the best of intentions, reacts to this noncompliance by closing the multitude of parks and trying to close the entire lake front to citizens needing to recreate.  It started last night.  But joggers are going to jog, ignoring the barricades and uniformed officers.  The basketball players may disperse until the officer drives away.

But at some point, there will be refusals to comply. Then what?

People are very aware that they most likely won’t actually be arrested.  Joggers aren’t going to stop and give up an ID because they were jogging three feet from their friend or for passing the brand new “5K Rule”.

And remember the police don’t want to touch other human beings and certainly don’t want to make physical arrests of people playing frisbee and frolf. As of this writing over 200 NYPD officers have tested positive and two Detroit cops have died!

The police will do their best.  They’ll ask people to “break it up” nicely and most will comply.  Well, they’ll comply until the officer walks away.

But at some point, some people will get stubborn, perhaps because that’s their nature or perhaps because the absurdity of being told by an armed police officer to “drop the frisbee” will be too much to handle and an argument will ensue.

Again, now what?

If you are waiting for the big reveal here, the answer is: I don’t have one.

This whole situation stinks.  I have six kids and six grandkids I can’t get together with and it is killing me.  One is a nurse!

The health care system is overrun because for some ridiculous reason the CDC and the state health departments weren’t prepared for a pandemic, which surprises me as that should have been their #1 priority over the past 100 years!

So now it falls to the average citizen and the cops.

I’m writing this because of what I’m hearing from those officers around the country.  As one said to me, “No one seems to have an answer to any of our questions!”

They are being asked to avoid arresting actual criminals, getting too close to anyone, even each other, but now they’re supposed to possibly arrest kids playing basketball and people taking long walks.

Again, I don’t know the answer and I’m not criticizing. Even the supposed experts in medicine are at odds about this thing other than we weren’t prepared for it.  (And one more time: How is that possible?)

My only advice is this.  People in power: don’t make threats that you, yourselves, won’t have to back up.  Think about what you’re saying and the ramifications of your threats made to the general public.

Everyone knows that the lakefront in Chicago can’t be shut down unless there will be strict enforcement.  And if you enforce the rule, what will really be accomplished?

Arrest and release them, then they huddle up and complain about the lack of compassion on the part of the police?  As one officer wondered, are we, then, going to be the ones thrown under the bus when this thing subsides?

He literally said to me, “If I write in the case report, ‘Per the instruction of Sgt. XYZ under the guidance of Commander ABC pursuant to the instruction of the Mayor of the City of Chicago, in accordance with the proclamation by the Governor of Illinois, the subject was placed in custody’ I’m still the one who made the decision to approach, arrest, cuff, search and take away the freedom of a citizen for being outside during a pandemic.”

Leaders Need to Lead

Officers need solid direction, especially in times of uncertainty. So bottom line, leaders need to lead now more than ever!

Believe me, I know they are under pressure also, but they chose these positions, so they need to be leaders, not managers and politicians!

They need to start by understanding the reality of human nature.  Stay calm, enlist community leaders and have the police engage as ambassadors not enforcers.  Rethink how they are to patrol.  Talk to them about what they should be doing and saying.

First line supervisors: Get out there!  Lead by example.  Use social media to relay the necessary messages.  Know your immediate community and bond with them. We are all truly in this together.

Finally, know that your cops are human, too.  They’re anxious, unsure and confused, both as people and as officers. And whoever you make them contact, they are taking that person’s contact residue home to their families.

Lead human beings, don’t just manage the current system.  Screw politics!  Forget your career aspirations in this moment.  Be in this with your personnel!  Be one of them!

The lasting benefits of that type of leadership, may be one of the few good things to come out of this crisis.


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Jim Glennon
Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.