Public safety agencies continue to operate at the forefront of their country’s COVID-19 response. Having needed to adjust quickly at the onset of the pandemic, today they are having to continually evolve to operate in what is a constantly shifting environment. It’s a hugely challenging role that requires agencies to strike a fine balance. On the one hand, they’re in the vanguard of ongoing efforts to protect and reassure the public. On the other, they’re tasked with managing an ever-changing threat and risk landscape, as well as enforcing evolving public health measures. All while ensuring their officers and staff stay safe and well.

Ongoing pressures

The pressures on policing operations related to COVID-19 won’t ease off any time soon. If anything, I suspect they’ll increase further over the coming months as public safety agencies stay vigilant to new threats as lockdowns ease, and they restart activities delayed by the pandemic, including taking steps to clear case backlogs.

They will need to be flexible and able to react to changing crime patterns. In recent months, under lockdown, we have seen crimes such as domestic violence and cybercrime increase, while other crimes have declined. But this is likely to continue to change as we move through the long pandemic recovery phase. Over the summer, it’s probable that there will be increased pressure on community policing as the people feel the strain of public health measures to curb the spread of the virus, and officers have to enforce new and changing regulations. This will further highlight the importance of community relationships and engagement, to continue to build the trust and confidence of the public as the police continue to appropriately enforce health guidelines to reduce the impact of the ongoing pandemic.

All of this underlines that the new ways of operating introduced in response to the pandemic must be managed carefully, in order to ensure continued operational flexibility and workforce wellbeing while maintaining public trust and confidence.

Making the transition

So, where does this leave public safety agencies today? Several months into the global health emergency, I believe they’re now transitioning into what has become a ‘never normal’ situation: an unprecedented time where society must learn to coexist with the pandemic threat and its longer-term consequences.

Going forward, I think the pandemic – and our response to it – will lead to fundamental changes in our cultural norms, societal values and behaviours. The scale of these changes suggests a potentially permanent shift to new ways of working and living for most citizens. This is happening at the same time as in a number of countries, especially the US, the way in which the police operate and the level of trust and confidence the public have in them is being questioned, with calls for widespread change.

Hardly surprising, then, that public safety agencies are grappling with new and evolving priorities, as they come to terms with the dawn of a sustained period of constant change in this ‘never normal’ environment. It’s a societal shift with no parallel in recent history.

Pandemic operations and beyond

That’s the background against which we’re entering the critical next stage of the pandemic’s lifecycle. Over the next few months, as societal restrictions are lifted across the world, the decisions made will have major long-term impacts on policing.

Given the multitude of ways the crisis might evolve, these decisions will be challenging and not without risk. It’s also likely that we’ll emerge from the pandemic into a new era of extreme budgetary pressure (potentially a return to austerity) across government that will directly impact public safety agencies. So, police leadership will need to take steps to improve efficiency and effectiveness in both the short and medium term.

In my view, this means public safety organisations will need to take the changes they’ve made in response to the pandemic and the lessons they have learnt from it – and then combine these to effect lasting change within their organisations, while strengthening their ability to remain both flexible and agile in this ‘never normal’ environment.

Mapping out the way forward

While huge uncertainties remain, I believe it is possible to identify a set of macro-level trends that will shape how policing evolves as we emerge from the pandemic. They include the adoption of digital technologies, the changing nature of work, the need to maintain citizens’ trust and confidence, and growing cross-agency collaboration.  All of which, especially the latter two, also take on another level of importance as a result of the wider calls in some countries for greater Police Reform.

In my next few blogs I’ll drill down into each of these factors in turn. First up is the acceleration of digital service delivery, and how public safety organisations can build on actions taken during the pandemic to transform their longer-term digital strategy.

 An earlier version of this blog was first published as an article in Policing Insight magazine.

James Slessor

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Safety Lead

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