At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the King County Sheriff’s Office began to prepare for a variety of possible outcomes for providing police services. They asked—what would happen if a significant number of officers couldn’t work because they were sick or quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure? How do we keep people safe? Even in the middle of a pandemic, police need to be ready to respond to urgent calls for help.
Protective equipment and new safety protocols
While planning for every possible contingency, the 9-1-1 calls continued to come in and the community continued to have emergency needs. “We never had any fundamental change in our ability to deliver 9-1-1 response,” said Chief Theodore Boe. “I’m proud of our ability to adapt to something that continues to change so quickly, and yet still stay focused on the job.”
In conjunction with local health and emergency service officials, the King County Sheriff’s Office procured personal protective equipment and updated their procedures to keep police personnel and community members safe. For example, they encouraged community members to report crimes by phone or online, they conducted interviews with victims in driveways instead of in living rooms, and they only allowed one officer to go inside a structure to minimize exposure. Gatherings, such as roll call, were now held virtually.
Community outreach challenged by stay home orders
One of the big challenges was that outreach and partnership activities had to adapt quickly in order to serve our most vulnerable community members. Place-based programs, such as programs in parks or in schools, were no longer possible. Police had to get creative on ways to connect to the community and local businesses, and not lose the relationships they had worked hard to develop. For example, gang intervention work shifted to using text and phone calls. Conversations with community members were held across a fence.
“Normally, I do crime prevention and community meetings 1–2 times per week. Figuring out how to do those types of meetings has been a challenge. I will be ecstatic when that comes back. I love talking to small groups and listening. Half of my job is figuring out what people need from their police department.”Chief Theodore Boe, Burien Police Department
Protecting people living homeless from COVID-19
One bright spot was the creation of the Co-LEAD program, a partnership between the Public Defender’s Association and the City of Burien, which helps protect people experiencing homelessness from getting sick from COVID-19. Boe has focused on finding creative and sustainable ways to fight crime, engaging both traditional criminal justice approaches and non-traditional partners in enhancing public safety.
He said, “We had 100 people living homeless or partially sheltered in our city with unmet needs. We wanted to find ways to not make their lives worse.”
By focusing on the unmet needs of individuals, Burien Police, the City of Burien Human Services staff, and partners have been able to find better outcomes for individuals. Boe estimates that, over the next two years, it’s likely that at least 100 more individuals could be helped through this approach.
Balancing family obligations
There were other challenges for police. Boe said that maintaining morale was important. Just like other members of the public, police officers had to adapt to the changes necessary to protect themselves and the community they serve from COVID-19. Often, the plan adapted on a day-by-day basis early in the response.
Support structures, such as schools and childcare and extended family members that police officers and personnel relied on so they could work, were also disrupted.
“Our police officers are members of the community and they are all affected by changes outside of their work for Burien Police Department,” said Boe. “We are all trying to figure out this rapidly changing world. For example, my wife is an elementary school teacher and my children are in second and fourth grade. Overnight, our family had to figure out how to homeschool and teach students from home at the same time.”
Battling an ‘infodemic’
Rumors and misinformation also caused problems. Public health experts say that we are not only facing a disease pandemic, but also an “infodemic,” defined as an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. We saw this play out in our local community. Rumors started flying about the need for essential employees to carry letters or other documentation to prove to law enforcement that they could be outside. Boe tried to dispel these rumors on social media.
Family violence on the rise
One concerning trend that has emerged during the pandemic is a rise in calls for service related to domestic violence. There is a fear that family violence is also being underreported. Schools and workplaces play a critical role in helping spot families experiencing violence, as well as giving them the support they need to ask for help. With their closure, and the closure of other institutions that provide a critical safety net, more families are left on their own.
“An abuser will try to remove the victim’s social network and safety net. Police rely on community partnerships to help protect people from abuse. Family violence prevention needs to be community led and feature a wide variety of intervention and prevention programming.”Chief Theodore Boe, Burien Police Department
Building public trust
When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the call for action supporting greater racial and social justice in policing, Boe said, “Ferguson was a giant leap in police oversight and accountability. We are now facing another leap. Building trust, public safety must be a team effort and be bigger than just criminal justice. It requires a lot of people at the table trying to solve complex problems. I am proud of the efforts in Burien to bring together a mixed approach that engages prevention, intervention, and traditional criminal justice approaches to addressing criminal behaviors.”
Family violence resources
Call 9-1-1 if you feel safe doing so.
King County provides support and resources for survivors of domestic violence and their families. You can go here to find out about legal rights, get an order of protection, and other community services: (kingcounty.gov/how-do-i/domestic-violence )
Here is a list of other organizations that may be able to help:
- National Domestic Hotline,1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224
- Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services, 206-812-1001
- API Chaya, 206-467-9976
- Consejo Counseling and Referral Service, 206-461-4880
- Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN), 425-656-7867
- Dove Project, 206-462-0911
- LifeWire, 425-746-1940
- Mother Nation, 206-722-2321
- New Beginnings, 206-522-9472
- The Northwest Network of LGBT Survivors of Abuse, 206-568-7777
- Refugee Women’s Alliance, 206-721-3846
- Salvation Army, 206-324-4943
- Seattle Indian Health Board, 206-324-9360
- Solid Ground, 206-299-2500
- YWCA, 206-568-7845
Editor’s note: The City will be publishing a story in the Winter issue of the magazine about efforts to engage the Burien community in a conversation about public safety, policing, human services, and racial and social justice.